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Match Analysis

The last grand battle between Pujara and Lyon?

By the time the next Border-Gavaskar Trophy happens, both of them will be 37 or nearing it

"Mid-on is up, for heaven's sake. Stop blocking everything and go over the top."
Rohit Sharma didn't say any of this, but his gestures and facial expression, caught by a camera trained on India's dressing-room balcony, were unambiguous. It's likely that a stronger word than "heaven" ran through his head.
India were 144 for 7 - effectively 56 for 7 - on day two of the third Border-Gavaskar Test match. Cheteshwar Pujara, who alone among all of India's batters had looked capable of surviving Nathan Lyon and scoring runs against him on a spiteful Indore track, was batting on 52. Rohit's moment of annoyance coincided with Pujara playing five successive dots against Lyon.
Now there were two ways of looking at it. You could say Rohit had no business telling Pujara how to bat given he was compiling something of a minor masterpiece and doing more than anyone else to keep India in the Test match, just about. Or you could say Rohit was justified, and that India, in the position they were in, needed quick runs if they were to set Australia anything like a reasonable target.
Pujara didn't have to look up at the dressing room or the replay screen to know how Rohit was feeling. At the end of the Lyon over, Ishan Kishan ran out in his glow-in-the-dark substitute's bib and passed on a message.
Third ball of Lyon's next over, Pujara stepped out of his crease and launched him for a clean, sweet six over mid-on.
This was partly a response to Rohit's call for urgency, perhaps, and partly to Lyon changing the angle at the start of the over and going over the wicket. From that angle, Lyon's outside-off-stump line gave Pujara a little more room to free his arms, and a little more leeway to leave his crease, confident that he could use his trademark bat-behind-pad thrust to kick the ball away if he didn't get to the pitch of it.
This was partly the new-age Pujara who doesn't mind hitting the odd ball in the air, and partly the age-old Pujara who plays the percentages like no one else. Together, the two Pujaras had combined rivetingly through India's innings as fortunes fluctuated this way and that.
At the start of his innings, Pujara had been endlessly busy: stepping out, stepping back, working the spinners into leg-side gaps as often as he could. India's batters had been able to employ the flick far more often than their Australian counterparts in the first two Tests; in this innings, Pujara was using the flick to attack, rotate strike and defend. If you judge the length well, move your feet accordingly and roll your wrists over at the right moment, it can be a safer option against offspin than defending with the full face of the bat.
There was positive intent even when wickets fell at the other end. Virat Kohli was lbw to Matt Kuhnemann when he tried pulling one that scooted low and snuck under his bat. In Kuhnemann's next over, Pujara rocked back to one pitched a touch short, and pulled him between midwicket and mid-on. It wasn't the conventional horizontal-bat pull, but something like a straight-bat back-foot punch with an extended follow-through.
Aggressive cricket, percentage cricket. Pujara was walking that thin line.
"You need to do that on such pitches," he told Star Sports at the end of the day's play. "If you just keep defending then there's one ball which will bounce and hit your glove. So yeah, you need to find the right balance of attacking and in between, yes, you still need to trust your defence, but my aim was to be a little more positive, try and rotate the strike, try and score as many runs as possible.
"Whenever I get a loose delivery I try and make sure that I punish those ones, because you have to work really hard to score those runs, so as a batsman you need to ensure, whenever you get a loose delivery, you just try and put it away."
Sometimes, he manufactured loose deliveries, like he did by stepping out to Kuhnemann: he drilled one back past the bowler, and met another on the full to whip it between mid-on and midwicket.
Right through his innings, Pujara showed more obvious urgency against Kuhnemann than against the two offspinners. Perhaps this was because the flick was less of a percentage shot against the turn, which meant he'd have to play the forward defensive far more often against Kuhnemann.
Pujara scored quicker against Kuhnemann (22 off 44 balls) than either Lyon (29 off 60) or Todd Murphy (7 off 34). While this had something to do with getting a small handful of balls from Kuhnemann to cut and pull, it also felt like a consequence of feeling slightly less at ease against him. While he achieved control percentages of 88 against both offspinners, he went at 81 against Kuhnemann.
It's a nerdy and vaguely unsatisfying way of describing things, but it said everything about Pujara's innings that he achieved a control percentage of 88 against Lyon, over 60 balls, when he was running through the rest of India's line-up in utterly treacherous conditions.
Lyon had only admiration for Pujara after the day's play was done.
"I wouldn't describe him as flashy or anything like that, but he's an unbelievable cricketer and I've got a lot of respect for the way he goes about it," he said. "Nothing seems to faze him, when it's bouncing at the Gabba or spinning here in Indore, he seems to find a way and a method.
"I think as I said last week at his 100th Test, a lot of boys and girls can really watch the way he goes about batting and learn from it. He doesn't have all the big reverse-sweeps and everything like that, but one thing he does have is an unbelievable defence. In my eyes, Test cricket is built around defence - not if you are England at the moment - but it's all built around defence. Hats off to Pujara and we saw the class of him on a pretty challenging wicket yet again."
In his pomp, Pujara regularly showed his class on challenging Indian pitches - the fourth-innings 72 on debut in Bengaluru, the twin fifties in Delhi in 2013, the 135 in Mumbai, and the 92 in Bengaluru are a handful of examples - but that hasn't quite happened in the recent past. Since the start of 2021, he's averaged 23.28 at home, and that's including this Indore innings.
At times during this stretch it's felt like the old certainty against spin had disappeared. But it was fully in evidence on Thursday, even against Australia's most dangerous bowler.
Along the way, Indore was treated to another gripping chapter of Lyon vs Pujara, and its final pages were a tribute to both.
Through the bulk of his spells to Pujara, Lyon had bowled from round the wicket with a 6-3 leg-side field. As Pujara neared and passed his fifty, it became 7-2 as Lyon took his slip out to strengthen an already packed leg side.
There were now two catchers close to the bat - two short legs sometimes, short leg and leg gully at other times - and two fielders to deny Pujara the flicked single - either two short midwickets or a short midwicket and a short square leg.
Lyon's explanation for this field change was simple.
"There was a period there where we thought if we could just try and build some pressure on Pujara - we understand he's got a really good defence and he's able to rotate the strike really well - so if we can just build some dots, hopefully we may be able to create a chance or build some pressure on the other batsman as well. There's no rocket science, its just about building pressure and shifting pressure on the other team."
From 43 off 83 balls, Pujara went to 52 off 134 - that's nine runs in 51 balls - before he hit that six. During this time, India lost the wickets of Shreyas Iyer, KS Bharat and R Ashwin, and a potential push towards setting a tricky target seemed set to spiral out of control.
On a pitch where so much was happening for him, Lyon gave up trying to get Pujara caught off the outside edge, and tried to play on his patience. Utterly pragmatic, but in its own way a measure of how well Pujara was batting.
Even at seven down, Pujara felt India had a chance if he could stitch a partnership with Axar Patel, so he was in no hurry to take risks. He's done this before - delaying outright risk-taking until he only has genuine tailenders for company - and he's done it to telling effect; his hundreds in Southampton and Adelaide followed just this template.
On this day, however, Pujara didn't get that far, and an attempted flick, at 59, ended up as a miraculous Steven Smith one-hander at leg gully. A most fitting end.
Lyon vs Pujara has now spanned 1265 balls - the most of any bowler-batter combination in Test cricket since the start of 2010 - bringing Pujara 561 runs and Lyon 13 wickets. No batter has scored more runs against any one bowler in this period, and only one bowler has dismissed any batter more often - Stuart Broad has taken David Warner's wicket 14 times.
It's possible we're seeing the last of Lyon vs Pujara. There's one more Test to go in Ahmedabad and potentially a World Test Championship final in June. After that? The Border-Gavaskar Trophy's next iteration will be in Australia in 2024-25. There'll be five Tests, but both Lyon and Pujara will be 37 or nearing it.
They may still be at it then, or they may not. In either case, we can feel blessed to have watched their grand battle unfold over all these series and all these years. Lyon has been ascendant sometimes, and Pujara at others. Indore may well have been their closest-fought battle of wits.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo