In 2008, India’s then No 3 batsman Rahul Dravid had played out 39 dot balls before getting off the mark against Australia in a Test match. He then raised his bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground, sheepishly acknowledging the cheering crowd with a smile and probably a sense of relief. He would eventually be dismissed for 53 after a stake-out at the crease that lasted 160 deliveries.
Ten years later, India’s current No 3 batsman Cheteshwar Pujara found himself in a similar quandary. Coming into bat during India’s first innings of the third Test against South Africa, Pujara was stuck on zero for 53 deliveries.
He finally got off the mark on the 54th delivery amid a loud cheer from the crowd at the Wanderers. His skipper Virat Kohli, who was batting at the other end, did coax him to raise his bat, but the 29-year-old only obliged with a chuckle.
In his time, Dravid played out a number of slow and patient knocks that would not invariably invite both plaudits and brickbats. Digging deep and anchoring an innings is what defined his style of play.
In Pujara’s case the occurrence of such slow scoring has been rare. But, on Wednesday it seemed necessary at least at the start. It was an innings of immense patience on a track that offered lateral movement, pace and bounce to the bowlers.
Pujara was trending on Twitter. As the dot balls kept accumulating, so did the intrigue. He would, however, dig deep. He brought up his half century in the final session of the day. He would depart soon after, ending a marathon 179-ball stay at the crease.
The right-hand batsman was at the crease for a total of 261 minutes. He refrained from going for the drive in the first two sessions of play, and instead chose to leave everything pitched outside off.
With India left tottering at 13/2, a collapse seemed a likely occurrence. India’s batting had left a lot to be desired in the first two Tests. The skipper’s decision to bat first on a green, seaming track had left many bemused after India chose to pick five bowlers in the side.
As the openers departed cheaply, the worst seemed inevitable. Fortunately for India, Pujara and Kohli would both stroke contrasting fifties to keep South Africa at bay on a track, which Pujara would describe as one “of the toughest he played on”.
Pujara was run-out trying to pinch a quick single on his first ball in the previous Test. There was no such impulse on Wednesday.
India have struggled with their batting throughout the series in South Africa. The story wasn’t much different on another seaming track, this time in Johannesburg.
Most of India’s batsmen have been guilty of not hanging around long enough at the crease so far in the series. The desire to pinch the quick single or convert the twos into threes has been strong. Pujara ran himself out due to these very reasons in the previous game.
India’s batsmen have also fended for the ball outside the off stump on numerous occasions in this series. The art of leaving the ball has not quite been a penchant for most in this series. Pujara, though, employed that well on Day 1.
It was a knock that was missing for India so far in the series. Kohli had to lead the resistance as well as the offensive in the second Test. This time around Pujara held up his end.
With Kohli at the other end, the duo pieced together a crucial 84-run stand for the third wicket. Their stint in the middle helped shield the lower order from the bite of the new hard ball on a green seaming track.
Letting it slip
The duo, though, was guilty of chucking away their wickets just as they had settled down and the ball had softened up. The lower middle-order then collapsed but the tail did wag for a bit as India ended their first innings on 187.
With Kohli at the other end, the post-lunch session was ideal for the two to form the base of a long partnership. But, Pujara remained stagnant, putting the onus on Kohli to keep the scoreboard ticking.
The two did not rotate strike too often. Kohli was understandably the aggressor and fell while driving in search of a boundary.
While, it was crucial to keep wickets, a little push after lunch would have given the lower order a chance to swing their bats and stretch the score beyond South Africa’s reach.
It was only after the break that he started asserting himself. Prior to that, he kept blocking or leaving. He fell at an inopportune time and triggered a lower-order collapse.
Despite the tame end. Pujara’s vigil proved that a patient approach was a more effective way for him to go about his task overseas.
The knock proved that Pujara is at his best when he plays his natural game and not when trying to sneak in quick singles or playing expansive shots that are not instinctive. Play a patient knock and build an innings, irrespective of the conditions.
It is a model that Dravid had mastered while batting at No 3 for India. One hopes, Pujara manages to do the same.