Gritty Pujara keeps India alive at Adelaide
Cheteshwar India ensured that India had at least 250 on the board. (Image: BCCI Twitter)

ADELAIDE: Two statistics stand out from day one at the Adelaide Oval.

Cheteshwar Pujara faced the most deliveries – 246. The second highest? R Ashwin, batting at number seven – 76.

Also, there were seven sixes hit in total during the Indian innings. The maximum number of fours hit by Pujara, who is the only batsman to cross 40 in this Indian innings? 7.

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It was an astonishing day in Adelaide at the start of a four-Test series, which India are expected to win. They picked an extra batsman (Rohit Sharma of course), won the toss on a placid wicket and then opted to bat. It all seemed to be going their way, unlike it had throughout the England series. It even seemed like a weird day.

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Normalcy was restored soon after as KL Rahul flashed outside off stump to attempt a cover drive on a wide delivery. It was only the 12th ball of the Indian innings. Five overs later, Murali Vijay got out in the same fashion – cover driving, or attempting one.

For once, Virat Kohli too was guilty of a loose shot. When his bat flashed wide, for a split second nobody paid attention to what he had done. Everyone was concentrated on Usman Khawaja flying through the air, without a cape, and grabbing a stunning catch to dismiss the best batsman in the world for a mere three runs. It was Test cricket at its best – almost poetic.

Except India were now reeling at 19/3 in the 10.3 overs – a sum total of 63 deliveries had blown away their unwanted tag of ‘favourites’ and left it in smithereens. It got worse – Ajinkya Rahane, fending Nathan Lyon uncomfortably and trying to play an unnatural game as he hit a six, then out cover driving as well.

Four batsmen. Four near-identical dismissals. This was an unreal script, even by the wildest dreams Australia could have had on Wednesday night.

Thing is, there weren’t really any surprises in India’s precarious situation. Rahul has been long short of confidence and is a poor reflection of the batsman he was earlier in the IPL summer. Vijay has never been the same batsman since the tour of South Africa, and his struggles in England were symbolic of the same. Only difference, he stayed a few extra deliveries.

How many times can Kohli rescue India from 20-2 situation? Through the eight and a half overseas Tests in 2018, this has happened with such alarming regularity that it is almost embarrassing to keep count. Two statistics suffice herein – in South Africa, the opening pair averaged 18.16, while in England, the opening pair averaged 23.70. In Australia, they have scored three runs together in their first innings, albeit vastly different and batting-friendly conditions.

Despite playing a poor shot, not a single word of criticism is warranted against Kohli. Even if he played a loose stroke, he is allowed enough leeway to last a couple years for what he has achieved this season. If there is any blame to be laid, it is at the feet of captain Kohli. Having seen the disastrous consequences of attacking Nathan Lyon mindlessly in the 2014 Adelaide Test, just how could the team management allow the same thing to happen again?

Rahane never looked comfortable from the outset, and it was clear that he was following a team strategy of hitting out against Lyon. But his form is now a serious concern. He is clearly not the same batsman he was at the end of the 2014-15 overseas cycle. While he is still looking better than someone like Rahul, in terms of timing and clarity of shot selection, these are two separate problems and both warrant either time on the bench or dropping from the squad altogether.

‘Worst shot of the day’ was however still reserved. Rohit Sharma, after all, simply had to win this tag. There have been questions in the past about his temperament, and yet with every Test outing gifted to him, he keeps raising the bar for criticism higher.

Looking most comfortable against bounce, pulling with ease, the hour’s need was to forge a long partnership with Pujara. At least until Australia forced an error out of him. He had just been awarded a six, which almost went to hand, and yet the very next delivery, he skied Lyon to the same fielder. What? Why? How? This is the range of questions that raced across the minds of a billion people watching.

For the sheer mindlessness on display, this over – from Rohit’s point of view – was arguably the worst passage of play in Test cricket, ever. That Rishabh Pant only sought to replicate it in the next few overs raises serious concerns about whether this team management – led by captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri – has learnt anything from the twin losses in South Africa and England.

At least one man did learn. Pujara was the epitome of Test batting. He is a unique cricketer, who still values spending time in the middle, when the world – including his teammates – has quickly moved towards slam-bang. In a way, his fighting knock had its roots in a near-similar fighting innings, played in January in Johannesburg. On a different, deadly wicket, he had taken his time too.

That time spent at the crease had told him what shots to play and not to play on a scathing Wanderers wicket. It was similar at Adelaide – the more time he spent in the middle, he knew not to play the cover drive, or to attempt to hit Lyon out of the part. He did play the pull shot, but only when the pacers tired out.

Maybe, just maybe, Pujara has kept India alive and breathing on a day, when their series’ aspirations would have been dealt a knockout blow. And to think, it was just the first day of the first Test.