Match Analysis

The odd couple: Pujara and Pant resume cricket's most fascinating, and infuriating, partnership

Their individual styles of batting couldn't be more different, and yet, they somehow complement each other perfectly

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
14-Dec-2022
Taijul Islam is known for bowling long unerring spells. He is in the middle of one when Rishabh Pant walks in. Taijul is landing it where he wants it, he is getting drift and dip, and also variable turn from the pitch. He has just got Virat Kohli with a flat, quick delivery that pitched on leg and turned against the angle. India are 48 for 3 after a quick start. There is support from the other end from the seamers after indifferent first spells.
A mark of how well Taijul is bowling is that he is testing even Cheteshwar Pujara on both the edges. Pujara is not the flashiest player of spin, but he is good at blunting them by reaching the pitch of the ball or going right back. It is not often that spinners have him playing forward-defensives from the crease. For some reason, Taijul is getting him to do it. Possibly what he was doing in the air or, as Pujara said, the mistrust of the pitch: not every ball has turned but enough balls have turned from the straight.
Enter Pant, and all of a sudden Taijul is bowling with a long-on and deep midwicket even before Pant had faced a ball. Even before Pant does anything audacious - in fact he is 6 off 14 - Taijul is bowling round the wicket to him. Pant now does audacious things, sweeping a full ball between the keeper and backward short leg, skipping out and hitting a six, just bending his upper body back to create a short length and pulling a four.
Pant might have doubters in limited-overs formats but he has been India's best batter in Tests for a while. Once again, promoted to No. 5 to disrupt the bowlers' rhythm, Pant does what needs to be done when it seems like Bangladesh are good at sealing conventional avenues of scoring for India's top order.
At the non-striker's end is the familiar sight of Pujara with whom he has now spent 1184 balls in the middle in just 10 partnerships. That's nearly 20 overs on average that the two bat together. It is one of the more fascinating partnerships in world cricket. Pujara can make you feel a mere good ball is not enough to get him out; Pant can hit mere good balls to any part of the field. It can't be easy for bowlers to adjust to these two extremes.
Pujara might be the last of his kind: a batter who takes defence to its extremes in a world full of fitter bowlers and deeper attacks. More and more batters and teams feel it is just not possible to wait to tire the bowlers before you take the runs you have earned. And yet there he is, making yet another comeback to the side, doing what he knows, just with renewed bloody-mindedness. Good balls out, soft hands when playing outside off, dancing shoes on but just to defend.
In his stubbornness, in his extreme trust of his own method, Pujara is exactly like Pant. At least till the Australia series was won, every time either of them got out they had people questioning their method. Maybe they empathise with each other too. Maybe that's why they click with each other. They quite obviously complement each other. Pujara has often said he gets access to bad balls because of Pant's presence with him. Pant can also be sure he doesn't need to curb his aggression, which a fall of wicket at the other end can force him to do.
And yet, going by public records, they can be mildly annoying to each other. There is this story from during the epic save of the SCG Test during India's epic tour of Australia in 2020-21. Pant was batting on 97 in the last over before lunch when Pujara told him to take it easy and come back and score the hundred if he doesn't get a bad ball. Turns out Pant didn't even know his score and told Pujara that the reminder introduced the slightest of hesitation in the shot that got him out. Pujara has spoken about how many hundreds Pant has missed.
"Pujara has often said he gets access to bad balls because of Pant's presence with him. Pant can also be sure he doesn't need to curb his aggression, which a fall of wicket at the other end can force him to do"
You can imagine Pujara probably feels Pant can do so much more with the natural stroke-making ability he has. Similarly Pant probably feels baffled at Pujara's insistence on properly grinding down the bowlers before taking them on. Yet, they enjoy batting with each other because India enjoy that partnership. Five of their 10 partnerships have started at 102 or lower. On each of those occasions, they have helped India out of the jam.
By the time they are separated here, India have seen off the dangerous period. They end the first day of their Test season in ascendency. A season in which they can't afford more than the odd slip-up if they are to make it to the WTC final. It might be safe to say that if India fail to make it there, some team will have found a way past this partnership between two of modern Test cricket's oddballs. And that is not a gratuitous attempt to suffix "ball" to come up with a name for the way Pant-Pujara play

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo