Apart from Perth, most of the surfaces in Australia in this series were uncharacteristically dry, making Nathan Lyon the most difficult of bowlers to neutralise. So evolved is his craft that he no longer requires much assistance from the pitch. But the heavy-landing fast bowlers, especially Mitchell Starc, created footholds that magnified his threat. On several instances, he had India’s best batsman, Virat Kohli, on the leash, and had the better of Ajinkya Rahane. But he couldn’t defy the defiance of Cheteshwar Pujara, who trumped him in a fascinating duel.
Stepping out of trouble
Pujara’s most trusted method was to shimmy down the track and reach to the pitch of the ball. It’s a risky shot against someone as nuanced in flight and dip as Lyon. Pujara, though, judges both with the unflustered mastery of Indian batsmen of a bygone era.
The key to his success is that he doesn’t premeditate. Almost every time, he reached to the pitch of the ball, smothering it with the turn. While initially his method kept Lyon interested, for it presented an opportunity to beat him in flight, beyond a point he began to overcompensate by bowling fractionally shot. Pujara was happy tucking it on the leg-side on the back-foot.
What makes stepping out a dangerous ploy against Lyon is his pace, but Pujara’s mind and feet were quicker. Whether he is playing an attacking or a defensive stroke, it dishevels the bowlers the length.
Kicking out of danger
In the second innings in Adelaide, there was a rough on the good-length area outside the off-stump. Stepping out was risky as one odd delivery could kiss the edge of the rough and break away. Moreover, Lyon was probing a fifth-sixth stump line. He was procuring enough turn to threaten both edges of his bat. To counter that he began stretching the front foot and just kicking the ball away. It was ugly but effective. He ensured that his front-leg met the ball outside the line of off-stump, and anyway when there’s so much turn and bounce, umpires will be reluctant to adjudge him in front. Thus, he annulled the bigger risk of a bat-pad and scored a battling 71 that eventually turned match-winning.
Straight and sweet
Pujara seldom tried to unsettle Lyon by manufacturing shots. He hardly plays the slogs or sweeps anyway. But whenever Lyon pitched full, he ensured that he capitalised on it. He was careful not to drive him through the covers, rather he drove him straight, with the bat face closing at the last moment. Closer to the body, he would drive on the leg-side. Anything on the shorter side, he would work through the leg-side. Also he played the cut and pull only when the ball was grossly short.
He never lunged at the ball—bottom-handed players are prone to—but always played it beside the body.