INDIA TOUR OF AUSTRALIA, 2018-19
Lyon’s classic plan of targeting the rough was negated by Pujara’s astute footwork and shrewd use of the pad © AFP
The rough patches on a deteriorating pitch must feel like a double-edged sword to an offspinner. On one hand, it makes his job easier as in he doesn’t need a blueprint for where he needs to land the ball. He’s got a locked-in location readily available and distinctly marked. There’s also enough assistance on offer from these patches – created courtesy the fast bowler’s footmarks – to accentuate his skills and his potency. But then, they also have the potential to accentuate his ineffectiveness or in some cases his ineptitude if he fails to make use of them.
Bowling into the rough for a spinner is akin to a gambler who keeps betting on the same number on a roulette table. It might be a strategy employed with the conviction that it’ll come good eventually at some point. But there is that odd chance, on a really luckless day, where it simply doesn’t work out. Nathan Lyon was having that kind of a day at the Adelaide Oval, especially against his nemesis from the first innings, Cheteshwar Pujara.
Not only was he not creating the impact that was expected of him or was demanded of him, he simply wasn’t getting the rub of the green go his way. Twice he celebrated Pujara’s wicket. Twice Pujara referred his dismissal. Twice, his decision to opt for DRS was vindicated. Twice, Nigel Llong had to reverse his decision – rather reluctantly.
Speaking of gambling on the cricket field – the lawful kinds that is – Pujara was hedging his bets on a risky manoeuvre himself. There was a time using your pads to negate a spinner’s impact was considered a shrewd, even if boorish, tactic. Former West Indies captain turned director of Caribbean cricket, Jimmy Adams, made a career out of it. It was back when batsmen still remained the more privileged class, where the proverbial benefit of doubt actually used to go their way. But towards the end of the millennium, umpires started developing a long-deserved soft corner for spinners, and started apprehending excessive pad-play. Then came DRS, further making life difficult for batsmen who would try to be deceptive in trying to convince the umpire that they were playing a shot while trying to put the pad in harm’s way.
But on Saturday, Pujara was using his pad to make a statement. He was up against a bowler who’d got his number more often than any bowler, save Jimmy Anderson. Pujara v Lyon may not be as glamorous an individual battle as a Virat Kohli v Jimmy Anderson. But it’s never been short of intrigue. Though Lyon has dismissed Pujara on seven occasions in the past, the India No. 3 has had his success against Australia’s premier spinner too, especially on home soil.
The Aussie had however had the better of their battles Down Under four years ago. To an extent, Pujara ended up losing his spot in the playing XI for the fourth Test on that tour, more so because of his inability to overcome the Lyon challenge than his handling of the Mitchell Johnson-led Aussie pace attack. He’d somehow got his own back in the first innings here with a three-figure knock, which involved a lot of facing and getting the better of Lyon. He wasn’t done though.
By the time Lyon came on to bowl on Day 3, the rough patches were dark enough to be seen from any of the regular flights that keep flying over the Adelaide Oval with their landing gears down. The pressure was as much on him as it was on the batsmen. He had to make the conditions count. Australia had conceded a slender lead of 15, but the Indian openers had given their team a base – through Murali Vijay’s attrition and KL Rahul’s break-free flamboyance. Pujara had dug his heels in similar to how he had on the opening day of the Test. Kohli was easing himself in for a long haul too. But while the Indian captain was bracing up to Pat Cummins’s energetic and challenging spell, Pujara was doing his best in negating the Lyon threat.
Eventually he would “pad away” over 30 deliveries Lyon bowled to him – a high percentage considering the risk involved with the tactic on a pitch where the ball was gripping and turning. But the right-hander wasn’t simply kicking the ball away based on its line. He was using his feet to make sure that Lyon couldn’t find the rough patches as consistently as he would like to, or even when he was, Pujara was ensuring that there was enough distance for the ball to travel at the point of impact with the pad to create significant doubt in the umpire’s mind to even think of an LBW decision. The second time Pujara was given out came in a similar scenario, but DRS showed the ball bouncing over the stumps.
Lyon’s plan was a classic one. He had three men manning the off-side, with a widish gap between cover and a fine mid-off. The gap was set up as the temptress for Pujara to help pierce off a ball pitching in the rough patch with the offspinner hoping to subsequently pierce through the gap between the batsman’s bat and pad.
Pujara never obliged. Instead, he kept either killing the turn by sticking his pad out, or using his feet to do the same. By frustrating Lyon and not allowing him to dominate as per Australia’s script, he also got the veteran offie to change his length, and line on occasions. Whenever the ball was too straight – and therefore not pitching on the rough spots – Pujara was well-set enough to tuck or flick it away for runs. And to add to Lyon’s annoyance, Pujara would pierce the gap left specifically for him, but he would do so off the back-foot once the bowler had pitched too short to create any trouble.
Pujara’s gamble wasn’t just working; it was paying off in great style. At one point, he even got Lyon to change his angle of attack, making him come from around the wicket – therefore completely nullifying the presence of the footmarks. By making Lyon constantly change his plans, Pujara also ensured that the offie couldn’t create any kind of pressure on the Indians – the alarmingly few number of maidens in his spells across two innings the greatest indicator of that. Lyon did have his moments intermittently, an entire over in particular where he almost had Pujara edging behind the stumps, and then awkwardly tucking away a sharp-turning off-break.
After having lamented about not seizing the initiative when the moment was ripe to do so in numerous Test matches away from home, India were finally living up to their promise, led by Pujara. Kohli played his part too in what eventually ended up as his second-slowest knock, in which he’d faced over 70 deliveries.
Kohli incidentally perished to a catch at short-leg after he did exactly what Pujara wasn’t – making the error of offering his bat to an off-break turning sharply into him. Ajinkya Rahane didn’t look too comfortable either after he walked in. Pujara though was in no mood to give in or change his approach.
Towards the end of the day, Lyon was just throwing his arms up and indulging in mock appeals after each delivery, It was a sign of his frustration. It was also a sign of Pujara’s triumph over him in his own den. It was a sign that the risky gamble had paid off.
Lyon finished the day indulging fans on the boundary with selfies during the last over. It was Pujara and India that made for a happier picture though with two days to go.