Six weeks ago, as the T20I series wound down to a 1-1 conclusion, everyone in Australia was talking about one batsman – Virat Kohli. You see, India had gone down in Brisbane, and the MCG fixture was a washout. In a 165-runs chase, Kohli smacked an unbeaten 61 off 41 balls, announcing his arrival Down Under for the 2018-’19 series.
“How do you stop him?” was the question every Australian newspaper asked the following morning, as did every radio station and TV channel, sports, news, or otherwise. It seldom happens that two cricketing nations are obsessed with the same name at any one given point in time. In the Australia-India context, perhaps it last happened in 1999, when Sachin Tendulkar led a team to these shores.
Australia – its former and present cricketers, media and public – has a way of obsessing about visiting captains and their best players. Back then, Tendulkar, in a team still learning to find its way, was both. It is a base similarity with the Kohli-led Indian side here. The difference? In 1999, Australia had their own heroes to talk about too – Justin Langer, Mark and Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne; the list is endless. It was the coming together of a champion team.
In 2018, Australia didn’t even have Steve Smith and David Warner to talk about, neither a semblance of chance pre-series, with everyone writing them off against the world’s number one Test side. Kohli, thus, was the cynosure of all eyes.
“How would you stop him,” one asked former Australia cricketer Geoff Lawson at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the four-day practice match between a Cricket Australia XI and the Indian Test hopefuls.
“You cannot really stop him,” Lawson said. “Good batsmen find a way to score runs, and Virat Kohli is a great one. If they can restrict him to average 50 in this Test series, then given the form of other Indian batsmen, Australia might have a chance.”
Now that the dust has settled from India’s first-ever Test series’ victory Down Under, it is a fact that Australia did manage to achieve what Lawson wanted them to. Kohli averaged only 40.28 in seven innings this series – that’s less than half of what he had averaged on the 2014-’15 tour (86.50 in four Tests), less than what he managed in both South Africa (47.66 in three Tests) and England (59.30 in five Tests) through 2018.
The difference, as the whole cricketing world knows by now, was Cheteshwar Pujara. 521 runs. 7 innings. 74.42 average. 3 hundreds. It is a staggering return, comparable to that of Sunil Gavaskar in 1977-’78, Sachin Tendulkar in 1999-2000, Rahul Dravid in 2002-’03, and of course, Kohli four years ago.
You and I, all of us across four decades, have woken up early on wintery Indian mornings and watched those names etch out their respective individual stories under the Australian sun. From Gavaskar’s 500-plus-deliveries marathons, to Tendulkar’s lonesome knocks, to Dravid’s god-like effort, and Kohli’s Herculean heartbreak, the anguish has been distinctly tangible at every turn.
This latest chapter of our collectively fascinating ‘waking up at 5am and watching cricket in Australia’ tales comes with a glorious rider – India won. When future Indian generations wake up at odd hours and tune into Fox Cricket commentary, they will smile, a billion in unison, for no help will be needed to spell out this one name – C.h.e.t.e.s.h.w.a.r.
Pujara’s impact goes beyond just mere runs and numbers, though. Perth was the only game where he failed to cross 50, but even therein, he batted 151 minutes for 24 runs in the first innings. Batting time has been the essence of this trip for Pujara – in Melbourne, he wore out the Australian bowling attack, almost preparing them for an encore in Sydney.
More importantly, he negated the impact of Nathan Lyon from one end – even when the off-spinner set leg-side fields, Pujara simply used his feet to turn him away onside and waited for that loose ball. When it did arrive, he caressed Lyon through cover, time and again. In the first two Tests, the spinner picked 16 wickets averaging 19.43. In the latter two Tests, on comparatively flatter wickets, he returned five wickets at 65.6.
It was the optimal Pujara effect.
Blunting down the opposition’s main weapon and making merry, he helped India achieve two unique points – Melbourne and Sydney were only two of three instances in the past 12 months when Kohli arrived at the crease with the score already reading 100-plus. The third was Nottingham, and there again in the second innings, Pujara had scored 72. Some day, he will look back at that innings as the turning point in his overseas Test career.
Post this series’ loss, Tim Paine reflected upon their “turning point”. He could have easily spoken about Jasprit Bumrah’s six-for spell in Melbourne. Instead, he lamented the “lost opportunity” in the first Test in Adelaide. He could have been talking about the mere 31-run margin of defeat. But recall here, India were struggling at 86/5 at one point on the first day of this series. Batting time, blunting the attack, scoring runs – the essence of Pujara was displayed in that Adelaide Test. Some might even call it ‘intent’.
Since time immemorial, the way in Australian cricket has been to make a lasting impression on day one of any series, particularly on home soil. Along with intense media focus and banter, this aggressive initial onslaught was famously part of Steve Waugh’s mental disintegration doctrine. None of it applies to Pujara though – Paine’s banter covered everyone from Kohli, to Murali Vijay, to Rishabh Pant and even random calls from strangers on journalists’ phones.
Under the radar
Paine didn’t bother about Pujara however, for he knew he would have better luck talking to/about the stumps instead. Josh Hazlewood even tried mind games, when he said in Perth that Kohli wasn’t his target, but the number three batsman instead.
If the Australian cricketing obsession with its opponents were a heat-seeking missile, then Pujara is a target it completely failed to find because he flies under the radar.
“He is a simple guy,” said Kohli, after the Indian team introduced everyone to the “Pujara dance”. Yes, he doesn’t move hands when walking. He cannot dance to save his life. He smiles only after reaching a Test hundred. In the press conference, he doesn’t answer questions about changes in technique that have helped him overcome 2014-’15 problems in overseas conditions.
Shunned by the IPL, he went to play County cricket. When shockingly dropped in Birmingham, he didn’t sully about – instead, Pujara went to R Sridhar and took slip-catching practice. He loves Test cricket – he is the very personification of it.
Perhaps now, we live in a world where a repeat of Edgbaston may never happen again.