Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane tango with Virat Kohli, to India’s gain
Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane added 90 for the fourth wicket in Perth. ©AFP

With 15 minutes to go for lunch, as the Indian openers made their way to the crease, a feeling of dread came up. Of late, the openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay haven’t inspired any confidence, let alone on a pitch like in Perth where pacers can make the ball talk.

It was a miracle that one of them lasted that mini-passage of play. In all, Vijay was out for a 12-ball duck and Rahul was beaten all ends up three overs later, post the lunch break. At 8/2, India were facing one of their biggest challenges in a year when their batting line-up hasn’t really done itself proud.

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One of the key pointers from the first Test win at Adelaide was Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane gaining form. Through South Africa and England, they had to work themselves into runs after not making good starts (well, they were not even selected in the first place!).

The point herein is that this Indian middle order looks in different shape when two of its pivotal anchors have runs under their belts.

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Pujara started solidly even before lunch, and carried on in the same vein post the break. It was a most vital juncture in the game, wherein India’s batting line-up starts at number three for all purposes. As Virat Kohli  strode in at Rahul’s fall, with India still 318 runs adrift, you just knew that the immediate direction of this Test rested on this partnership alone.

Cheteshwar Pujara began the repair work when India were 8/2
Cheteshwar Pujara began the repair work when India were 8/2. © AFP

The question here is, did you watch that first hour of play post lunch? When Josh Hazlewood steamed in, and Mitchell Starc bowled his heart out? When Pat Cummins put in a short burst and then Nathan Lyon tried to outfox the batsmen? In that hour, India scored 37 runs in 14 overs of play. More importantly, Pujara and Kohli didn’t give Australia even a sniff.

Singing praises of their partnerships is easily done, but let us talk about the Australian bowling for a moment. Having seen how India faulted at hitting the right lengths through four sessions, the hosts knew that they had to try bowling fuller on this Perth deck. Often, when the ball is rearing off length, it is easy to get carried away. India’s four-pronged pace attack was guilty of this, but not the Australian quicks. They probed, with full-length deliveries, and were ready to take punishment on the chin.

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Indeed, Pujara and Kohli do punish bowlers but in their own mannerisms. With the former, you know he will shut shop and go to sleep, only to wake up when you have tired out and then feast on the freebies you will bowl at him later in the day. Pujara did as much, staying true to his strengths, as he gobbled up 103 deliveries for 24 runs.

Kohli, meanwhile, is the best batsman in the world. To know the difference from other batsmen, just sample how Rahul got out and why Kohli fended off the same deliveries from Hazlewood with such ease. The opener, planted back in his crease, couldn’t decide whether he wanted to flick or play straight to a ball that moved away from him from the stumps.

With Kohli, the difference is in where he stands – wide outside the creas
Virat Kohli has taken the fight back to Australia, with Ajinkya Rahane for company. © AFP

With Kohli, the difference is in where he stands – wide outside the crease and still puts in a long front foot forward, thus taking out the movement. Of course, it is not easy to face three pacers this way, when their average bowling speed is clocked at 143 km/h. Then again, Kohli is kind of world cricket for a good reason and there is no other active batsman – maybe Steve Smith, but he is banned – today who could bat like he did on a tough pitch.

Australia’s fuller-bowling tactic crashed at this point because it allowed Kohli to latch on to their bad balls and play his drives. There weren’t many boundaries therein, for the ground is big and he was happy running with Pujara. They had to revert bowling short of length, which, funnily enough, etched out the latter’s wicket when he flicked behind down leg.

But Pujara’s dismissal also sucked Australia into trouble. They thought bowling short at Ajinkya Rahane would help their cause. Pocket-sized as he might be, Rahane loves to swivel on his back foot and slam boundaries in a counter-attacking style. Not many of this transitioning Australian side were present when he deployed this tactic at the MCG in 2014, and by the time they realised what was happening, Rahane had shifted momentum back in India’s favour.

The other key element emanating from the Kohli-Pujara partnership was the shine on that Kookaburra ball. They were at the crease in the sixth over, which means the cherry was still new and darting around. Simply by instinct, they had to go slower than they would have liked to, just to make sure that the softer Kookaburra could be easier to score off.

It was seen in the slow pace of the first partnership (74 off 200 balls), as compared to the run-rate in the latter one, nearly rocketing in comparison. Kohli and Rahane brought up 50 in 106 balls, and it was then that Australia realised the need to apply brakes. The duo then added 40 runs in 78 balls, still going at a near-similar rate, but slower in the overall scheme of things.

The bottom line at stumps on day two was in how Australia warded off giving away too many easy runs to Kohli-Rahane and still maintained a healthy 154-run lead, something the Indian pacers didn’t think of and frittered away too many runs on day one.

Of course, it left too much to do for Kohli. Only this time, he wasn’t alone and had two other batsmen to tango with him.