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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Fight for space at the heart of Pat Cummins vs Cheteshwar Pujara contest

Pujara’s method has one ‘flaw’. The need to hold the bat inside the line, on the off-stump line. The bat is on that line; a ball outside it is allowed to fly past the edge due to his unusual control over his hands.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: January 11, 2021 3:36:44 pm
Cummins’ is a labour of cricketing intelligence, a matter of working out barely visible flaws in Pujara, causing internal injury rather than mere body blows.

The entire battle between Pat Cummins and Cheteshwar Pujara has narrowed down to the smallest real estate of trouble around the off stump. Unlike most batsmen, Pujara has near-total control over his hands. He doesn’t chase balls (the shot in the Melbourne chase was an aberration), doesn’t stab at them, doesn’t let his hands wander ahead or away. The bat is tucked in, held softly to sponge out the venom in a misbehaving ball and is also the last line of defence in case it tilts in towards the off stump. The method has been his childhood friend, but Cummins is now forcing it to betray him.

Though he has pace, Cummins doesn’t blow away the batsman. He alters their reality. Ball by ball. He is not an overwhelming force but a counterintuitive explorer of angles, a bowler who has made Pujara feel not fear, but doubt. Cummins’ is a labour of cricketing intelligence, a matter of working out barely visible flaws in Pujara, causing internal injury rather than mere body blows.

It’s not a set-up. It isn’t about slipping in a surprise deviator from the norm; it’s not about slanting a few balls in and then taking one away. Pujara is made of sterner stuff than that. The king of patience doesn’t get distracted so easily. That was the attempt in the last series in Australia. Lessons have been learnt.

Pujara’s method has one ‘flaw’. The need to hold the bat inside the line, on the off-stump line. It’s the fulcrum, the soul of his technique. The bat is on that line; a ball outside it is allowed to fly past the edge due to his abnormal control over his hands. They don’t jerk. The deviating ball can’t land a kiss.

Pujara doesn’t leave as many balls as M Vijay did in his pomp. He likes to feel bat on ball, preferring to sponge out trouble rather than outright rejection. He has built a technique around that basic urge. His game is to play the line and his carefully-constructed technique allows him to do that. It lets him tap them away, and hold his bat in line when the ball swings or seams away. It lets him push short-of-length balls to gully or point. It lets him nourish his urge to play the line, without danger. Until now.

Some have magic in their fingers, some are intelligent; bowlers who combine cerebral and physical magic are rare. Cummins’ game is built around making the batsmen think the ball is going to come in with the line. Like Jasprit Bumrah, to an extent. His angled release point suggests a hint of inward tilt. He then layers it with counterintuitive deceptions.

Conventionally, bowlers come close to the stumps when they want to take the ball away. It’s not only easier to bend them away from there, but it also makes it curve late from a straight line. But Pujara’s method is built to handle this. The bat will be held in line, and the ball can dink away, and late at that. No problem.

Cummins usually cuts the ball in when he goes close to the stumps. Most bowl it wider from the stumps and as batsmen it’s easier to play that angle, but when it happens from the stumps, the inward movement starts late and the angle is tough to play. Pujara’s game can still handle this, though he will keep short-leg and the leg-side fielders ever alert.

Cummins usually gets the ball to go away when he is slightly wider on the crease. He combines it with his release angle. He then sprinkles in some finger magic. Unlike some bowlers whose fingers slide down the seam more often than not, Cummins’s fingerprints lead one to the wondrous world of Mohammad Asif. They cut the ball in. They rip it out. Significantly, they can rip it out from a wider angle of release.

It’s not an illusion. The ball actually does come in the air from that angle. Pujara plays the line. The past predicts bad news about the future. But he can’t abandon his childhood method, now. So, he presses forward cautiously, peering across ever so carefully. He knows the ball will tail out but can’t be absolutely certain of it. That angle of release means the ball can just waft in along with the line and knock the pad or the off stump if he isn’t alert.

Cummins adds one final layer to this. He keeps it back of length to try and upset Pujara’s balance. Pujara has a short forward press and just freezes there when the ball is short of length. It’s not freezing out of shock but an attempt at stillness to hold his balance. When the ball straightens or comes in, he can tap them away without much fuss. But Cummins’ wider angle means the straightening is actually a leg cutter in many ways.

The betrayal starts now. The hip can threaten to open up. The hands start to itch. Pujara presses hard to keep them in line. But the finger-magic from that angle takes the ball just about away for the fatal collision with the edge. If Cummins had bowled this from closer to the stumps, the ball would comfortably cut away. If he didn’t have those Asif-fingers, it would have been blunted by the bat on the off-stump line. Pujara would still have taken his bat away from danger if not for Cummins’ pace. There is no time to get out. There is nowhere to go. Pujara’s real estate of trouble might be really tiny but Cummins’ art has allowed him to take over the property.

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