Cheteshwar Pujara’s slow knock, and thereby India’s snail pace, has meant that time is now an element that is against Australia. @ Twitter/ICC
Cheteshwar Pujara’s slow knock, and thereby India’s snail pace, has meant that time is now an element that is against Australia. @ Twitter/ICC

MELBOURNE: Travis Head is good at marketing Test cricket. Post stumps on day one, in each question of a ten-minute press conference, he talked up the importance of the morning session on day two.

Of course, from his and Australia’s point of view, that was their only positive line of thinking. A new ball that was only seven overs old, and the pitch misbehaving at odd moments, they could strike out a couple wickets in the morning session and have a go at the famously unpredictable Indian middle order.

It didn’t help Australia that India’s best batsmen in this 2018 overseas cycle were at the crease. Virat Kohli is in imperious form – when is he not? But this wasn’t a free-flowing knock from him; in fact we haven’t seen one on this tour. In Adelaide he was out cheaply and then had to grind in the second innings. In Perth, his masterful knock was a response to the pitch and an ode to tough conditions – still not the free-flowing all-dominating knock.

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Here in Melbourne, he was grinding again, like in the second innings of that first Test. But Kohli also rode his luck on both Wednesday and Thursday. There was that drop on 47*, and two other slashes that flew through slips and gully. Play and miss, a smile, another play and miss; a couple mishits when he tried to pull – this was not Kohli at his trademark best. Even so, he was good enough for 82 runs on a sluggish pitch, such is his class and confidence at the moment.

This Indian innings instead bore the Cheteshwar Pujara watermark. He is the quintessential Test player, isn’t he? Someone who can bat time – just forget everything, the pitch, the bowling attack, 70,000 people on day one and 36,000 on day two. Forget intra-team politics, forget that there was only one proper opener, forget everything under the sun – he was born to bat.

Pujara bats and bats, then bats some more, and before the opposition realises, he is past facing 200-odd deliveries with the game titled against them. @ Twitter/ICC
Pujara bats and bats, then bats some more, and before the opposition realises, he is past facing 200-odd deliveries with the game titled against them. @ Twitter/ICC

Often, that last phrase is used for someone like Kohli, or Sachin Tendulkar and Sir Viv Richards before him – stroke-makers, batsmen who play free-flowing cricket and get on top of the opposition, taking the game away in a session or two. Pujara too does that, but in a slow-release manner. He bats and bats, then bats some more, and before the opposition realises, he is past facing 200-odd deliveries with the game titled against them.

When Richards and Tendulkar went big, you knew what magic spectators witnessed. Nowadays, it is the same for Kohli – you have been bamboozled, like in Perth, and you know it. With Pujara, you don’t know. It is almost as if you are at a wine tasting session, and after three sips each from ten different vintages, you are just waiting for it all to hit home.

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Bang! Then it happens. Suddenly you are high, or alternately, you are looking at the scoreboard and wondering how did they get so many runs? It could be 250 in Adelaide when the top-order commits suicide. Or, it could be 400 in Melbourne, when the pitch is flat yet just not good enough to score freely. When Pujara bats, you witness something unique in world cricket today. You only realise it later, like that sip of fine wine permeating through your senses.

Wine, of course, is not for everyone. At stumps, Ricky Ponting questioned on Channel Seven that Pujara’s strike-rate was too low. Perhaps he missed the point wherein Kohli didn’t dominate, and even Rohit Sharma as well as Rishabh Pant tempered their aggressive styles. It was almost as if the Indian batsmen were batting to a plan – who knew it was possible given this batting line-up’s travails in 2018?

Back in 2003, Ponting had scored a speedy double hundred in that Adelaide Test. Australia racked up 500-plus with such speed that it left enough time for India to collapse and for Rahul DravidVVS Laxman to make a recovery, and then for Australia to collapse, leaving India time to score a historic win.

Pujara’s slow knock, and thereby India’s snail pace, has meant that time is now an element that is against Australia. Post play, Aaron Finch was of the opinion that ‘all three results are still possible’, even though it is furtive that he was already thinking about bowling to India again.

There is still the small matter of this first Australian innings, and how long Finch and his mates bat on day three, will determine the result no less as also how the ICC rates this MCG pitch eventually.