INDIA TOUR OF AUSTRALIA, 2018-19
Pujara, with his hundred, helped India undo a lot of the damage that they’d inflicted on themselves earlier © Getty
What is intent in cricket? Maybe it’s a question that should be circulated around the Indian dressing-room. Thursday (December 6) would be a good day to do so. Is intent all about facing the opposition head-on and “expressing” yourself from ball one? Is it about playing shots regardless of their outcome just so that you can establish some sense of dominance over the opposition, even if mostly it’s in your own heads? Is it about driving at full deliveries that otherwise could be left alone just because driving at them means that you are being positive?
Or is intent what Cheteshwar Pujara brings to the crease every time he walks out to bat? The desperation to grit it out, however, innocuous he might look while at it. The desperation to face the heat, literally and figuratively like he did in the 40 degrees of merciless heat in Adelaide, and not give in to any form of temptation for 246 deliveries. The desperation to stay out on the pitch. The conviction to keep making tough choices even as your colleagues keep taking the easy way out at the other end.
It’s perhaps an indicator of the present Indian camp’s mind-set that the one settled Test batsman who’s come under most scrutiny in the last 12 months, thereby leaving him unsettled, is Pujara. And more often than not it’s got to do with, ironically, his alleged “lack of intent” with bat in hand. Pujara gets stuck. Pujara doesn’t have a strike-rate required at this level. Pujara doesn’t take enough singles. Pujara doesn’t fit into the kind of approach that India want to adopt in Test cricket. We’ve heard them all. He’s heard them all.
On Thursday, at the Adelaide Oval, even as the Indian top-order fell in a heap showing off their brand of intent; it was Pujara’s that saved the day. While the rest refused to lift their feet off the pedal even when there were obvious obstacles on the way, Pujara held on to the hand-brake when it mattered before settling into cruise-mode once he was set, and then stepping on the gas when it was really required.
India had won the toss and elected to bat on an Adelaide pitch, which despite producing spongy bounce on occasions and providing movement with the new ball looked ripe for runs. It certainly wasn’t a 127/6 kind of pitch for sure. But a day after Kohli had spoken about how his players’ positive approach wouldn’t involve playing “rash shots”, that’s exactly what they did, including the captain himself.
There were two openers, both playing for their places in the side. But their idea of trying to cement the spot was attempting extravagant drives to deliveries that could have been left alone and getting out. Murali Vijay in fact fell to a loose drive after having survived an even worse dismissal, when he flashed at a very wide half-volley and somehow squeezed it past gully. Ajinkya Rahane, who hasn’t made a Test century in 15 months, got his eye in, was dropped at short-leg off Nathan Lyon, before playing a very expansive waft at a gentle away-swinger from Josh Hazlewood in a new spell. Kohli too was guilty of being too eager to go at only the second delivery outside off-stump after the Australians had started off by attacking his pads and stumps. It was a similar shot to the one in Edgbaston where Dawid Malan had dropped a catch he should have never dropped. Here, Usman Khawaja at gully leapt to his left and held on to a catch that he should have never caught.
What about Rohit Sharma then? Having helped India recover from the early collapse that left them staggering at 41/4 with a breezy knock, he gifted his wicket to Lyon after coming inches close to gifting his wicket off the previous delivery.
To Rohit’s credit, he’d tackled the seamers much better than those who came before him, and his attitude towards Lyon was perhaps a sign of a larger team strategy, that didn’t include Pujara of course. Lyon is a dangerous proposition on Australian wickets, and he was into his own from the moment he came on. The Indian response to get on top of him, not a bad ploy but it required the right execution.
Positive footwork against spin doesn’t always mean charging at a spinner and trying to clear the in-field like Rahane did successfully early in the spell. It’s about using the crease and your feet to unsettle the off-spinner subtly like Pujara did. He never used his feet in anger, but instead to nullify Lyon’s ability to repeatedly hit a length and get the ball to jump off it menacingly. Pujara would leave his crease only to make Lyon change his length, and when he wasn’t, the right-hander was trying to push back into his crease and wait on the off-spinner to dish out a delivery slightly shorter than usual. It took a while, but Pujara was patient enough to reap the rewards, as he cut Lyon past point for a couple of boundaries late in his innings. It was pure Test batting, puritan almost for the times. But that’s Pujara for you.
He might look unsettled at the crease often. Just see him right after he’s ducked under a fiery bouncer. It’s like watching someone who’s just received a rude shove in a Mumbai local train. You’ll see him suddenly fidgety and frisking himself, adjusting every part of his equipment before regaining his position in the crease. The point is he doesn’t let it affect the way he faces up to the next delivery. In that regard, he is blessed with that underestimated ability that most successful Test batsman possess – a short-term memory while they are at the crease.
Rishabh Pant perhaps played the most bizarre innings of the day, but one that sums up the different understandings of “intent” in the Indian camp. And who’s to say the young wicketkeeper wasn’t given a pat on the back for his intent when he walked back after a cameo that would have sat well in the death overs of a T20 contest but looked ridiculous on the opening day of a Test series. Pant had after all done what this team prides itself in, standing up to the opposition and taking them front-on. Mitchell Starc had exchanged a few words with him after bowling him a searing bouncer. Pant had then responded with a nonchalant flick for six. You wonder how many would have taken notice that he’d played that shot despite Australia having placed two fielders on the boundary for that very shot, and the fact that the ball hadn’t flown over their heads but fortunately bisected them to cross the ropes. He had eventually perished tamely to an edge to Tim Paine off Lyon, but it seemed a matter of time before the left-hander would throw it away.
Pujara dealt out a class or two to his teammates about how to time their ‘intent’ © Getty
It’s almost a different Pujara that comes to the fore when he bats with the lower-order. Just for the record, he was batting on 35 off 119 balls when Pant was dismissed, and eventually scored 77 runs off 103 balls in the final session of the day. The reasons for the contrast are understandable. Pujara obviously has more freedom when he’s batting with the tail and he’s in-charge. And he’s always had the ability to accelerate and make up for a slow start in his first-class career. But the biggest takeaway from his century in Adelaide for the rest of his teammates should be when he chose to go for the jugular. It was only after he’d blunted the Aussie attack under the sun, waited for the Kookaburra to go flat and soft, and ensured that he’d got a perfect understanding of how the pitch was behaving. It might sound like batting tactics 101 but it’s exactly what India have often lacked while showing off their “intent” in away Tests – the ability to wait for the right time.
India hit 7 sixes in all on the opening day, which itself is a rather significant statistic. The last two of those came from Pujara. There was a swivel-pull that flew off the top-edge over the fine-leg fence to take him to 95. Then came perhaps the most audacious shot of Pujara’s Test career, a slapped six over point when Starc went short and wide. Somehow they stood out a lot more than the other five that came earlier in the day – even Rohit’s glorious check-drive six over the covers. For, there was context to his intent. Just like there was to his decision to scramble for the single and get run out by an acrobatic Pat Cummins’s effort at short mid-wicket. By then, Pujara had helped India undo a lot of the damage that they’d inflicted on themselves in the first half of the day.
But does that answer the original question? For it looks like the jury is still out on what cricketing intent really is, in the Indian dressing-room anyway.