It was indeed a knock strewn with near-dismissals as Cheteshwar Pujara came close to being out four times, three sharp catches and one tough stumping miss, but it was a fascinating knock nevertheless. Especially the phase where he broke free from being stuck on single-digits and almost caught up with Rohit Sharma. The fascination lay in the contrasting approaches between the two batsmen.
After a slow start, Pujara stagnated against the spinners, not due to lack of effort, though. It was just that his Plan A wasn’t working. At that point, Rohit was using the sweeps and paddle sweeps to effectively dismantle the spinners and Pujara was trying his usual stuff. He tried to punch off the back foot or lean forward to nurdle but Keshav Maharaj and Dane Peidt were in control then, and didn’t give him pace or room to do it. Pujara largely played from the crease, tried to wrist them away but no luck. He was on 8 for a while, on it for 20 balls, in which time Rohit had reached 48.
It was then that Pujara stirred into Plan B; not that it was drastically different, he had tried to use his feet before but the intent was vastly different. Also, for a while he was playing from the crease as well, and perhaps trying to hit the ball in his attempted punches.
Then, he changed his intent, though the first attempt almost got him out. He went down the track to off-spinner Piedt and tried to whip it across the line but got an inside edge. However, Quinton de Kock couldn’t account for the deflection, and that was that.
Pujara didn’t panic and change his approach though. He had tried batting from the crease but that wasn’t working and he was in no mood to go down wondering. During the next six balls he faced, from Piedt and left-arm spinner Maharaj, he collected three fours with wristy flicks after stepping out. Sensing he had arrived on a successful plan, he began to deploy it with great relish.
Express Audio | What makes Rohit Sharma the gully boy of Indian Cricket
He loves to use his feet to spinners and many a time, he can use it even as a defensive ploy, especially on turners. Here the ball wasn’t spinning big and he was using it as an attacking option. Time and again, he glided down the track to whip them delectably through the leg side.
Changing the ‘point of impact’
“The intent was also changed. Yes, early on it was bit difficult once I realized that I had to play few shots and obviously with the same technique. I did not make a lot of changes but once I knew the pace of the pitch I was finding it easier to bat… It was difficult pitch to bat on. It was not east to rotate the strike, it was not easy to time the ball well and, especially with my game and the kind of shots that I play, I was finding it little difficult early on, but I always knew once I am set, once my body is warmed up, once I find the right pace of the pitch — because early on it was a two-paced pitch — but once I knew that, I actually changed my point of impact,” Pujara said. He explained what he meant by changing the “point of impact”.
“Early on I was trying to hit too hard, trying to play little late wasn’t helping me. Then obviously I had to play a little bit upfront with the bat. Because the pitch was quite slow against the spinners so I had to generate power. So I was playing in front with the bat,” he elaboraed after the end of day’s play.
In other words, rather than waiting and trying to play them late, he started to meet the ball in front the pads, with a more forceful intent and the shots started to come off. Plan B worked as well as Rohit’s sweeps and paddles. The bowlers began to drag back the length or switch the line to outside off and Pujara began to cut and drive them. He quickly jumped to 40s even as Rohit was in his 50s. All of a sudden, because of Pujara’s acceleration, India were clearly on the ascent and any South African thoughts about squeezing the runflow had been stubbed out.
Not that Faf du Plessis just sat there without reacting. He brought on Rabada, who now had a ball in a decent shape: one side shiny. He started to harass Pujara with his skill, getting the ball to dink in and out at will. And late at that.
Soon, Pujara had fallen into an uncertain state of mind. One full delivery had him groping forward, unsure of whether it was tailing in or shaping away, and he edged it between de Kock and du Plessis at wide first slip. The next ball came in and Pujara pushed it out to backward point. The next one was the away-leaver, this time from a good length, and Pujara yet again pushed his hands out uncertainly. Another edge that plummeted through the same gap in the field. Now they had two slip fielders but Rabada was tiring and he was replaced after two more overs with Philander.
Pujara looked more secure against Philander but then came one delivery that cut away, opening him up, and trapping the back leg in front of the off stump. He hoped DRS would save him but it didn’t and by then, through contrasting approaches, Pujara and Rohit Sharma had firmly pushed India to the top, allowing them to go out on all-out attack on the final day.