PUJARA'S TRIUMPH: CRICKET, LOVELY CRICKET

As I write this, India are 2 balls away from saving the Sydney Test. There’s one over left in the day’s play. And as I’m watching Tim Paine has called it off. Its 1-1 after three Tests.

It has been a brutal series for India. For one reason or the other, they’ve lost the services of Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Ravindra Jadeja, Virat Kohli, Umesh Yadav, and possibly Rishabh Pant’s wicket keeping. The Australian bowling is quick, accurate, guileful and hostile. If the three Australian bowlers were black, they would have been described as menacing.

The Sydney wicket has been losing steam as the days have gone by. By the fifth day it was slower and lower than on any previous day. But it was still a wearing wicket. There were four days worth of foot marks. Nearly 2000 deliveries had landed on it. It takes a lot of good fortune to survive 131 overs against this Australian attack on any wicket, let alone in the last four sessions of a Sydney Test.

India played out 231 Australian overs in this game. Cheteshwar Pujara faced one ball short of 64 overs of those. He made 127 runs in the match. One in four balls Australian bowled to an Indian batsman at Sydney was faced by Pujara. They dismissed him twice. But if batsmen save Tests, and bowlers win them, then Pujara saved this one.

In the 2nd innings at Adelaide, India were not in control for 32 of the 128 balls they faced, and lost 10 wickets [based on Cricinfo’s control records]. In the 2nd innings at Sydney, they were not in control 134 times in 131 overs, and lost 5 wickets. On some days, the ball goes past the edge, the leading edges falls safe, and the catches don’t stick. Test matches are saved. All sorts of psychobabble is usually peddled after such events, and there will be mountains of it today. It will all be overheated nonsense.

Steve Smith pointed out that the wicket was benign. We can see that from the rate of not in control deliveries (1 in 6 balls) at the 2nd innings in Sydney compared to the 2nd innings in Adelaide (1 in 4 balls).

This is a terrific Indian squad. Pant, Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw are generational talents. Pujara, Kohli and Rahane form a terrific middle order. Rohit Sharma plays fast bowling better than most Indian batsmen. And players as good as Hanuma Vihari are on the margins of the squad. On the bowling side, Jasprit Bumrah is also a generational talent like Pant, Gill and Shaw, while Shami, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Siraj make up the deepest, highest quality Indian fast bowling pool yet. Ravichandran Ashwin is one of the greatest players of his generation and India’s greatest contemporary wicket taker. Ravindra Jadeja does everything well and should always play in the Test XI, as Daniel Norcross of Test Match Special often tells me.

All this was true yesterday, last week, last month, and last year. It will still be true tomorrow. It was true in 2018, 2019 and 2020. It was true when this India were competing and losing, and it is true when India compete and win.

India made a choice by picking Rishabh Pant ahead of Wriddhiman Saha. They chose greater batting depth (and the extra left-hander in the middle order), over Saha’s superior keeping. And that’s what they got - average keeping and terrific batting. I’m not convinced that this is a good trade off . 250 plays 250 is more likely to produce a win than 400 plays 400. Saha’s keeping is more likely to produce dismissals than Pant’s. On balance, it seems to me to be a better idea to chase wickets than to hedge for more runs. But India have hedged with Pant for reasons of balance, and to counter the quality of the Australian attack, and its a reasonable defensive selection. There’s even a case for picking Pant as a specialist batsman, and if Vihari’s hamstring injury proves to be too serious for him to available for the 4th Test, it would not be surprising to see Pant playing as a batsman.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s approach against this high quality Australian attack has been vindicated in this Test match. It has not been proven right, because that had already been done before. India play different types of players in their XI. Pujara and Vihari are the watchful, wait-for-the-bad-ball type of player. While Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant have a lot of strokes and play them regularly. Neither set can play like the other set against a top class attack. If they could, they would be Tendulkar. But Pujara’s approach lasted 381 balls (and survives longer on average in Australia) than the more attacking approach. Together, the two approaches make a better line up.

Australia are an irresistible side, especially with the ball. Yet, India have been good enough to keep them in check. India are able to produce enough high quality overs, even with a debutant and another bowler in his 2nd Test (who is going to be a magnificent bowler), to stay in the game with the ball. With bat, India are technically good enough to survive against a truly supreme bowling attack. All this was true yesterday, last week, last month, and last year. It will still be true tomorrow. It would have still been true if the edges had gone to hand today and India had lost instead of drawn.

The quality and completeness of this Indian side means that their average cricket is better than that of any of their predecessors. The goodness of a team’s good days and the badness of its bad days is always relative to this average. Complete squads, with quality in every area play better cricket on their average days than less complete squads. They will still face the usual noise. Cheerleaders will cheer them on days like today, and abuse them on the days when they lose. But that’s just noise, and not cricket. When it comes to cricket, they’re an extremely skillful bunch, both on the days when they lose and on the days when they don’t.

You can take the ridiculous jingoism about “adversity” and tell yourself fairy tales about today, or you can admire the cricket. You can admire the fact that Jasprit Bumrah can beat very good batsmen for pace. You can admire Ashwin’s flight and control. You can admire Pujara’s defensive technique. You can admire Siraj’s cerebral beginning. You can become engrossed in the shifts in line and length, of Pujara changing his guard from middle and leg in the first innings to off-stump in the 2nd against Nathan Lyon. You can take pleasure in watching Ajinkya Rahane batting in top form. You can enjoy Vihari’s disciplined dead bat. You can see India’s coherence in the field.

There is a lot of outstanding cricket to watch when India play. It would be a good idea not to miss it. Cricket provides us with the spectacle of outstandingly skilled individuals exerting themselves to achieve a level of excellence which is unusual in everyday life. We can surely do our bit and actually try to observe it. It will make us better, less ignorant observers. And as less ignorant observers, we won’t be shocked into believe ridiculous nonsense about courage or guts or determination when a top class professional side survives on the fifth day on a benign pitch, and cowardice or incompetence when they get bowled out cheaply in bowlers conditions. And that will make the world a better place.