In five words, Nathan Lyon conveyed to Cheteshwar Pujara the angst of an entire nation. “Aren’t you bored of batting?” he asked him soon after the former had completed his third hundred of the series, blocking, blunting and burying the Australian bowlers to utter submission. By that time he had soaked up more than 1000 balls in the series – he would end up with 1258 – the most by an Indian batsman in a four-Test series outside Asia.
The most haunting image for the Australian bowlers in this series wasn’t what they feared the most, the symmetric parabola that Virat Kohli’s bat draws when cover-driving, but that of the ball dropping off Pujara’s blade, ball-marks glowing like a blazing bindi, in front of his feet. Lying harmlessly like a defused hand grenade. The most fearful sound wasn’t the thwack of a whiplash pull, but the crack of a sturdy front-foot defence. Lyon’s words summed up the sheer agony of repeatedly bowling and being habitually repelled by a batsman disinclined to risk, indisposed to indulgences. So much so that after a while the bowler feels like running against a brick wall, when everything you fling at it rebounds. It’s Pujara’s idea of mental disintegration, and it was the glaring difference between the two sides.
To put in perspective his monumental effort, Kohli and Rishabh Pant absorbed 1,157 balls altogether. Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, KL Rahul and Murali Vijay combined faced fewer deliveries than him. It amplifies in magnitude when compared to Australian batsmen. No one faced half as many deliveries as Pujara; Usman Khawaja dealt with the most, a meagre 592. Travis Head was the only other batsman who stayed at the crease for longer than 500 balls.
Like Lyon, Aussie skipper Tim Paine summed the agony of bowling at Pujara: “There was no lack of trying. We tried everything at him, bowled full at him searching for the nick, short for a miscued pull, at the stumps in the hope that he would miss one. But he didn’t relent. We needed some luck to get him out or a really fast track like the one at Perth.”
It goes without saying that Pujara was the key to India’s success in more ways than one. His incredible stickability killed two birds with one stone — he laid the foundation for India’s huge totals, and also fatigued the Australians bowlers so much so that by the last Test they were not only physically ravaged but also mentally exhausted. Their workload, in comparison to their Indian counterparts, was monstrous.
The Indian seam trio bowled a combined 396.5 overs whereas the Australians stacked up 461. Five Indian spinners, including part-timers Hanuma Vihari and Murali Vijay, collectively bowled 251 overs while Nathan Lyon himself racked up 242.1 overs. When you convert the balls faced by Pujara into overs, he stayed at the crease for an equivalent of 210 overs.
Several batsmen from both sides tried to impersonate Pujara, but like most attempts at impersonating, churned out counterfeits. Shane Warne, on air, felt that most batsmen weren’t skilled at the art of surviving a rough phase.
“They seem to have neither the patience nor the application to put their head down and frustrate the bowlers. Batsmen like Pujara drain the bowlers’ confidence without the bowler even realising that he’s getting drained,” he observed. His own preferences, he admitted, was bowling to aggressors like Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara than against Jacques Kallis or Shivnarine Chanderpaul. “They gave chances even when they were set. But not Kallis or Chanderpaul, They can bat forever.” Like Pujara this series.
If one look at Pujara’s knocks this series, even if he had batted for two sessions, he wouldn’t look to unshackle in the third. He was as resolute as he had been in the first two sessions — unfazed by fatigue or complacency. Pujara explained the reason; “My only aim was to bat as long as I could. Not to get out at any point of the game. Sometimes even if you’ve scored more than hundred runs, your team will need you.” Not that he was unschooled in the art of crease-occupation, his entire career is built on that from childhood, but he seemed extra-motivated this series.
Such doggedness is a rare trait in cricket, for batsmen seem to have been crippled with limited attention spans. Not just batsmen, but laymen too. Recent studies in the West have discovered that the concentration level of the world has come down by 15 per cent from the last century. They call it the goldfish syndrome — the species is notorious for its restlessness.
The lightning rod for criticism is the shorter-version revolution, which has opened up the horizons of batsmen. The elimination of risk is no longer the highest priority. Such an approach has, beyond doubt, made Test cricket more exciting, with more matches bearing results and fewer matches meandering into dull draws. But it has also made stonewalling being considered an archaic art form, and diligent blocking an anachronism. A throwback to the 1970s, an era in which the dour stonewaller was indispensable, embodied by Sunil Gavaskar and Geoffrey Boycott.
Similar batsmen are now considered old-fashioned and redundant — not too long ago, Pujara’s limping strike rate was considered contrarian to the team’s attacking philosophy. The last of such tribe in Australia, Ed Cowan, is often mocked at, every time a batsman faces more than 100 deliveries, he’s derisively said to have completed a Cowan-hundred. For long, he has grudged this as the reason for him being regularly overlooked, while eye-catching stoke-makers were afforded a longer rope. So much so that young batsmen with a defensive batting mindset choose to turn themselves into attacking players, for becoming a defensive player in modern cricket is considered unwise.
Even Ricky Ponting was critical of Pujara’s hundred (106 off 319) in MCG, slapping that it could cost India the game. “If they haven’t got time to bowl Australia out twice … it could be what actually costs them the game,” he had remarked. But his words, like several other critics’, came to bite his back.
That he plies his craft in this milieu of instant gratification makes him all the more special. Gavaskar blunted and burnt attacks when blocking was the norm, but Pujara lives amidst dazzlers. But just then, someone springs up to make throwbacks fashionable. Just like Warne restored a dying craft. Just like Pujara did this series. Just ask Lyon.
All he could do was prevent Pujara from scoring a double hundred. Small mercies.