It’s a shame that on a day of high quality cricket test, a run-out and what followed in the next half hour there will be more talk of persistent bowling in what were less than ideal conditions for the home team. and the batting expert to counter them for nearly 80 overs.
The run-out, of course, could still have a say in the Test, but this was a day when the Indian batting engine room rolled up its sleeve, got dirty and made sure the team didn’t throw away. the advantage of winning the toss, let alone the three wickets lost for 45 runs to the stumps.
In the first part of the Test, it was clear that it would be hard work for the Australian bowlers to take the wickets. A real advantage with the new ball did not lead to the slip. Nobody would do it all day. However, it was also soon clear that stitch streaks would be hard work, especially when direct overpitch deliveries were made straight to midwicket or mid-on. It was a slow shot with a steep rebound where the margin for error was perhaps more for the bowlers than the batters, but then again the edges wouldn’t just hold up.
India likes to score fast, Australia likes to hit the batters. Neither was happening. So Australia moved their attack straighter and relied on Nathan Lyon more than they wanted on day one. In Lyon’s sights was his nemesis, the glittering Cheteshwar Pujara, who had reduced the champion of the tad to utter a plea for mercy of “aren’t you bored yet?” on the last tour.
At the sight of Lyon, Pujara, his characteristic phlegmatic ego until then, at 21 out of 104, begins to jump out of his fold. He does so not out of arrogance, but out of the need not to allow Lyon to dish out lengths that draw defensive forward shots. It is the most dangerous place to be when Lyon bowling because it will keep hitting the seam of the club and will eventually get one of the edges. And while it might seem risky to some, Pujara can take a step closer to spinners because it’s a skill that has been honed over hundreds of hours of rotation tackled. Step back to judge length and reach for the ball throw or step off the line and push the pad if it is hit in flight.
On the last tour, especially in the first decisive test, Lyon had a trick wrong by not placing a stupid point or a fool in the middle of the field, which allowed Pujara to keep pushing his pad or kicking the ball away. Lyon had observed then that it was a fair plan against him, and now they had to respond.
Lyon may not have been able to respond emphatically during that series, but here they had a plan: the fool at half-court. Now Pujara had two catchers to contend with if he got out. He even offered a half chance upfront at that silly mid-off. Forced to play legs now, he had more inside edges than usual, but kept backing away. In fact, he came out with 14 balls out of 35 that he faced from Lyon. At 40%, this rate was significantly higher than its usual 17%.
Lyon kept bouncing, asking difficult questions, but Pujara was not in control of just three of the 14 balls he had come out on. More importantly, he was quick to cash every time he forced Lyon to pitch short. In the end, Lyon were good enough to draw the feared defensive striker out of Pujara. One of those four dived enough to land out of his reach and bring the inside edge to the pad. Lyon only believe in bowling the toughest offbreaks that lure hitters forward and play a little with field placings. “This is what works in Australia,” he said last time.
Pujara spoke of Lyon with respect at the end of the day: “Only the laps he makes on each ball, he likes to throw. He wants to throw as many overs as possible. That’s another advantage he has. And his line and length are really good, which has improved a lot, I think. His laps are much better than four or five years ago. He likes to take the challenge. He’s someone who likes bowling. “
Surely this is not the last we have seen of this fascinating competition, but unfortunately – for cricket lovers, not the Kohli family – we are close to seeing the latest from a modern master for this tour. Virat Kohli smoothly transitioned to Test mode after months and months of limited beats. He came without preparation for match time – it wasn’t physically possible for him to play limited-limit cricket, then the warm-up match, and then be fully intense for testing – but that couldn’t be told by the way he beat. .
There was a time when Kohli’s response to test spells was a counterattack. Now, however, Kohli is so confident in his game and confident of others that he knows the correct answer for different match situations. And like the number 4 before him, Kohli is adept at shelving shots or introducing unusual ones on the go.
Kohli only played two cover drives at the pace, presumably due to the strong rebound. As a result he also reduced the defensive push out which meant he wasn’t being dragged, thus aligning lbw balls better. The tradeoff was the strike rate – this was his second slowest fifty in Test cricket but he had done his best to eliminate the two layoffs that teams often attempt against him.
To catch up a bit, Lyon only lifted the third ball they faced from the spinner, a shot they hate playing in tests so as not to give the bowler a chance. He also led Lyon against the round although he usually uses the traditional method of playing with spin in tests.
In this respect, this was a better inning than, say, Edgbaston, because here it effectively eliminated all the risk, which was not the case in Birmingham, as was evident from the edges that did not go within reach and the tricks that were fallen. Then again, there was less lateral movement to deal with here.
Eventually, while looking set to end the drought of the century, Kohli fell because he had stuck to his weapons. He likes that fast singles deny bowlers a prolonged attempt by a batter. Earlier in the day, he saw Pujara deny him one of these singles. Then Ajinkya Rahane had to take a dip to make another one. Even during the run-out, Kohli did nothing wrong – he trusted his partner instead of looking at the ball and committed to running completely. It was just that Rahane had hit the ball a little too well and close to the defender. It’s a mistake that happens from time to time and will likely happen more frequently if you rely on these fast singles. The merits of such a strategy can be debated, but not the rest of Kohli’s inning.
If that’s the best we can see of Kohli in this series, he’s already set the bar quite high.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo