Sydney: Cheteshwar Pujara’s singular lack of intent pushed an injury-ravaged India into a deep hole as Australia tightened the noose with a substantial 197-run lead on a forgettable Saturday for the visitors in the third Test here.
Pujara’s slowest Test half-century, a painstaking 50 off 176 balls, was soon followed by India being bowled out for 244 on the third day with the other batsmen feeling tremendous pressure of a dormant scoreboard. A first-innings lead of 94 runs provided by the bowlers and some good fielding did help Australia’s cause.
By stumps, Steve Smith (29 batting) and Marnus Labuschagne (47 batting) gave an exhibition of how to bat on slow tracks with Australia reaching 103/2. Labuschagne, in particular, showed how to bat positively on a dead track hitting six boundaries in 67 balls.
As Shane Warne pointed out during commentary, it would be very difficult to chase any score in excess of 250 with variable bounce and the odd balls keeping low. Pat Cummins (4/29 in 21.4 overs) was brilliant on an unresponsive track with some effective short-pitched bowling and got good support from Josh Hazlewood (2/43 in 21 overs) and Mitchell Starc (1/61 in 19 overs), having set up a leg-side trap.
To make matters worse for India, there were run-outs and two batsmen — Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja — were hit on the left elbow and left thumb respectively. While both might come into bat in the second innings, Jadeja, with a swollen left thumb, will find it difficult to even grip the ball.
Earlier, Pujara’s ultra-defensive approach put tremendous pressure on his colleagues and India never quite got the momentum going as Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc continuously attacked the batsmen — first with a leg-side field and short-ball strategy and then on the corridor of uncertainty.
Pujara doesn’t play the pull or hook shot well and he wasn’t allowed room to either cut or drive. “I don’t think it was the right approach (by Pujara), I think he needed to be a bit more proactive with his scoring rate because I felt it was putting too much pressure on his batting partners,” former Australian captain Ricky Ponting wrote on twitter.
While he never tried to rotate the strike, the likes of Ajinkya Rahane (22 off 70 balls) and Rishabh Pant (36 off 67 balls) felt the urge to break the shackles in the absence of any such intention from the other end.
“It may have looked like a flat pitch but it wasn’t easy to score runs,” Pujara told host broadcasters Channel 7 during post match snap interview.
The defensive approach also resulted in three run-outs including the one of Hanuma Vihari (4 off 38 balls), who fell short while going for a quick but non-existent single.
It was then left to Ravindra Jadeja (28), who had to throw his bat around to bring the lead down to less than 100 runs, but that is of little comfort considering that India would now have to bat fourth to save the match.
A total of 84 runs from 34 overs in the first session, with lack of intent especially from Pujara, didn’t help India’a cause and Rahane’s dismissal was purely due to the scoreboard pressure.
The Indian captain failed to get a move-on initially on a slow track where bounce became variable as the session session progressed.
He did hit a cover drive and then tried to take on Nathan Lyon by lofting him for a six over long on.
However, Cummins bowled one where he got extra bounce in his off-cutter, cramping Rahane for room and he was played on. The duo added 32 runs in 22.3 overs and it didn’t help the team in any way.
Had KL Rahul been fit, there could have been a case of Vihari getting dropped as he didn’t show in any way that he was in control during his half an hour stay at the crease.
Pant got into the groove quickly but a nasty blow on the forearm did affect his shot- making and the result was a caught behind off Hazlewood, after a 53-run stand in a little over 20 overs.
Pujara, at the other end, was bowled short initially with three men on the leg side and then on the off-side with his cover drive dried up. Even the drive wide off mid-on didn’t fetch him boundaries. In the first 100 balls, he didn’t have a single boundary.
Finally, after completing his slowest ever half century in Test cricket, Cummins got one to rear up from short of length and it was that one good ball every batsman gets when he is not scoring runs.
From 195 for four, suddenly it was 210 for eight and there was only Jadeja left to score a few runs.