It was an uncharacteristic, routine-breaking day at the Hagley Oval. The ground-staff expected a trickle of spectators, they poured in like a deluge; the outrageously grassy and green surface winked temptingly at the bowlers, it hardly swung or seamed; the weathermen predicted a warm afternoon, but it turned out to be bone-chillingly cold; Cheteshwar Pujara is a model of sturdiness and discipline, yet he got out playing a hook shot.
How else would you explain Pujara perishing when attempting a hook of all shots? How else would you comprehend the shrewdest of Indian batsmen, Virat Kohli, failing to comprehend a usual set-up routine? How else would you reason Hanuma Vihari’s rush-of-the-blood pull shot three balls before tea? How else would you explain India’s first-innings score of 242 on the flattest surface they’ve encountered in the Test series? Everything that could have gone well for India went well. Yet, they contrived to find themselves in a spot where everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. It was as if they felt too apologetic to accepting good fortune that they outrightly refused it.
Sample the Pujara dismissal. Forget the stroke for a while, after all he’s not unschooled in stroke-making, what was more unseemly was the timing of the stroke. Just eight balls after Vihari’s dismissal in the last over before tea. Routinely, in situations such as these, Pujara is the least of suspects to waste his wicket in so trivial a fashion. These are junctures wherein, his patience and composure usually shine the brightest, and for the most part of the innings, he batted in a familiar manner, until that moment.
Even if he’s not scoring briskly, he weathers the storm, blunts the attack and incrementally reverses the pressure, as he had been doing in the 81-run stand between him and Vihari, who was gullible of throwing his wicket away himself.
Understandably, Pujara was so gutted that he kept kicking the turf and admonishing himself as he walked disconsolately back to the pavilion. Wondering, why on earth did I? Rarely has he been so expressive after getting out. But, it was the day of the bizarre.
So did Vihari, who kept staring disbelievingly at the pitch. It was no fault of the pitch, but his own. For he had looked in divine touch, took on and neutered a short-ball barrage by Neil Wagner and Co, counter-punched them to submission, and then self-imploded. Like Pujara, it was so unusual of him playing the wrong shot at the wrong time. You would expect men like Prithvi Shaw to get out this way, given his natural aggressive disposition. But not Pujara or Vihari, Test specialists who are schooled in the art of the waiting game. But it was as if they were trying to slip into a second skin, by trying to be artificially positive. True that Vihari’s counter-punching paid off, but the time had come to retreat to the old avatar, that of a steady stroke-maker.
But in their over-enthusiasm to embrace a different, artificial skin, they shot themselves in the foot and squandered the advantage. The score of 190/4 towards the end of second session, called for classical Test-match batting. This was no time for machismo or hyper-aggression, rather it was the perfect put-your-head-down-and-grind moment. Inexplicably, both failed to read the situation. Later, Vihari confessed of getting out at the wrong time: “It was a wrong time to get out obviously, just before tea. We had a good session. We scored 110 runs and lost only one wicket prior to that. I was batting positively but I played one shot too many.”
It could be true for most Indian batsmen. Once they realised that the colour of the strip was a mere facade and the New Zealand bowlers were not as sharp or cunning as they were in Wellington, a false sense of security wrapped them. They began looking out frantically for boundaries and ended up playing injudicious strokes. Barring Ajinkya Rahane, and Kohli to an extent, none could console themselves that they lost their wicket to a terrific delivery. Mayank Agarwal swiped across the line, an expansive drive cost Shaw his wicket, Rishabh Pant, dropped twice in two balls, slashed at a wide delivery to get himself bowled.
As for Kohli, you would expect a batsman of his calibre to out-read the usual away-curler and nip-backer double bluff. He didn’t. Good as the ball was, his hands got too far ahead of the ball and the alignment went haywire. Not often do you see him so dishevelled in his follow through.
The stroke-making looked exciting while it lasted, it was thrill-a-minute stuff from Shaw and later Vihari, but in the end, a clutch of 50’s on a good surface barely acquires match-winning dimensions. What India desperately needed was some century-makers. And sadly no one took a lead.
Perhaps their approach would have been different, perhaps more watered-down on this surface, had they been not sitting on 1-0 deficit in a two-Test series. So, there was a desperation to stamp themselves. To illustrate their intent. Vihari reasoned: “But that’s the name of the game. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. Today it didn’t go my way but I will look to play positively again when I get another chance.”
His word encapsulates the philosophy of the team—a side that prides itself as a watchable, aggressive side. Kohli repeatedly emphasises this. “I don’t think being cautious or wary will help because you might stop playing your shots. You will start doubting that if even singles are not coming in those conditions, what will you do? You are just waiting for when that good ball will come and you will be dismissed,” he had quipped after losing the Wellington Test.
All great teams have this streak, but they also make the sweaty, hard runs when the situation demands it. Flexibility of approach is the fundamental pillar of any great team or individual across the sporting world. A bit of attrition would have served India better.
Under Kohli, India’s batting unit has been as ruthless, impregnable and attractive as any in the world – when the conditions suit. The problems begin when conditions are friendlier to bowlers, where their template wouldn’t always work, where just a thin line separates aggression and silliness.
And in this particular instance, it wasn’t even a case of a devilishly swinging wicket or high-class bowling. And this would hurt India more. But then, it was the day of the bizarre and unlikely.
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