Pujara bats and bats, and then bats some more, to give India advantage
Cheteshwar Pujara struck his third century of the series. (AFP Image)

SYDNEY: The first day of the fourth Test in Sydney started with a simple statistic.

Since January 2018, India have used six different opening pairs in 12 overseas Tests. Together, in 23 innings, they average a paltry 21.56 in 23 innings in South Africa, England and Australia.

As KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal walked out to bat, they became that sixth pairing. Rahul alone has batted with Agarwal, Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Prithvi Shaw in the last one year, and the returns have been nothing to write home about, no thanks to his own dwindling form. Talking about this latest opening partnership then, well, it lasted nine balls. Rahul edged three of them, two of which were streaky boundaries, and was caught on the third. In total, they put on 10 runs. (ALSO READ: Pujara carries India to 303/4)

It tells a story of how India have been let down by their top-order repeatedly on three overseas tours in a single calendar year. And you can conclude that it cost them the series in South Africa at least, if not in England. Before this Sydney Test, Virat Kohli has come out to bat with 100 runs on the board only twice before – second innings in Nottingham and first innings in Melbourne. (ALSO READ: No fairytale for KL Rahul)

This first innings at Sydney, wherein Kohli came out to bat at 126-2, thus became only the third such instance in the last year of overseas Test cricket. It was down to two factors, namely Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara.

In recent times, the Indian cricket fraternity has forgotten how an in-form opener looks like. Sure, there was always Shaw who could have set this series afire with his attacking shot selection. But that is now mostly subject to conjecture. We need to go by hard evidence, and for that, well, only refer to the openers’ statistics aforementioned (Shaw is yet to play an overseas Test).

Across three Test innings, Agarwal has done what Rahul, Dhawan and Vijay couldn’t provide throughout 2018 – a stable hand at the crease, facing the new ball, not looking to get on top of bowlers from the word go, biding his time, looking for partnerships, waiting before bringing out his shots, and most importantly, putting on two hundred-plus top-order partnerships in three innings. He is what an in-form opener looks like.

Mayank Agarwal continued to enjoy a strong start to his Test career. (AFP Image)
Mayank Agarwal continued to enjoy a strong start to his Test career. (AFP Image)

Of course, like any newcomer, he has his shortcomings. Those were two Test hundreds for the taking in Melbourne and Sydney, and he threw them away. Perhaps his biggest learning could be in these scores of 76 and 77, for when a bad patch comes, you are reminded about the hundreds you haven’t scored. Ask Rahul, or better yet Ajinkya Rahane, who keeps finding new ways to get out despite looking in good touch.

This is where Pujara stands a class apart. Let us start with a basic statement – he has even out-batted Kohli in this on-going four-Test series. For India, this only means delight because the skipper has been crying out loud for support across South Africa and England.

If only he had someone stand up and score some runs there, maybe the narrative could have been different. Before you think up any argument against this point, just see Pujara’s runs in this series – 458 at stumps on day one in Sydney – and see that India are leading 2-1. He leads Kohli by 176 runs. Do the math!

For Australia though, it is a painful vision seeing Pujara bat and bat, and then bat and bat, and again, bat some more. Here are the statistics that matter – 1135 balls thus far at stumps on day one at the SCG. That’s 189.1 overs. That’s more than two whole days of batting in Test cricket, if he were facing deliveries from both ends, alone. This has been one massive grind, period.

When was the last time an Indian batsman had such an impact? You go back to 1977-78 and Sunil Gavaskar had batted 200-plus deliveries in an innings on three occasions. Pujara has four this series. You go back to 2003-04 and see that Rahul Dravid scored 619 runs, facing 1203 balls. Remember, he had faced Jason Gillespie, Brad Williams, Andy Bichel, Nathan Bracken, Brett Lee and Stuart MacGill – an Australian attack without Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

Pujara has faced Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon – arguably one of the better bowling attacks in Test cricket at the moment. He isn’t too short on the runs’ chart, but more importantly Pujara is creeping up slowly on that latter mark – balls faced. In a low-scoring Test series such as this one, wherein not a single Australian batsman has hit three figures or faced 500 balls yet (Travis Head with 498 balls in three Tests is yet to bat in Sydney), he has been golden.

Simply put, he has been a statue of patience. He has batted time, and in two of his last three innings (at Melbourne and Sydney), has negated the impact of Lyon. That element has been vital in making the Australian pacers work harder as the off-spinner isn’t picking wickets (1-150 at MCG and 1-88 at SCG thus far).

Using his feet and dispatching Lyon continuously through mid-wicket, Pujara has blunted the Indian batting line-up’s main threat, and in all probability, turned the course of this series.