5:51 AM ETSidharth Monga in AdelaideFacebookTwitterFacebook MessengerPinterestEmailprint”It is easy to play shots. When you start playing shots [during a testing spell], that means your game is not capable enough to play the Test format. You are trying to survive there rather than just understand the situation and play accordingly. When you start playing shots, it means you are under pressure as a batsman and you are not able to handle that situation. When you defend confidently you know you are in command, you are on top of the bowler, and he doesn’t have a chance to get you out. You will ultimately score runs when he bowls a loose ball.”
India should get this printed out in a large font, headline it “Commandment of Che”, given out originally to the Cricket Monthly, and stick it up on their white board in their dressing room. And carry it everywhere.
Perhaps in a smaller font, they should stick the Commandment of Arvind Pujara too: “To hold your mind for so long is the most difficult part of batting. You decide anything in your life. Let’s say you say you won’t lie today, but somewhere you will end up doing it. So many things happen on a cricket field that can set your mind doing other things than the way you know is best to bat. He is able to bat those long innings because he can hold his mind.”
India came to Adelaide with their best chance to beat Australia in a series in Australia but also with a terrible recent record in the first Test of series. Starting with England’s tour of India in 2016-17, India have beaten only West Indies and Sri Lanka in the first Test of a series. The rest involves losses in England and South Africa, one to Australia at home, and a draw against Sri Lanka at home. India came aware of that record.
Virat Kohli said they wanted to play “not tentatively”. They wanted to impose themselves early. “Not wait to find out what the condition of the pitch is going to be”, “read it really early”, and “alter our game accordingly”, unlike in South Africa and in England. He didn’t want rash shots, but the focus clearly was on seizing the game early. You live through that prolonged build-up, the photo shoots, the press conferences, you walk out on the first morning of the series, the mind starts racing ahead of the body, you work yourself up, and as it is you are naturally excitable. You feel like being rushed into everything. It must be easier for professionals to hold their mind, but it can’t be easy, and that is the light you might want to look at the first session in.
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For starters, India won the toss. They have never lost a Test after Kohli has won the toss. Their last defeat despite winning the toss came four years ago, in Brisbane. They won this toss on a dry hot day, with temperatures expected to nudge 40. They were up against an attack that didn’t have a fifth bowler. This was a great opportunity to put the miles in the bowlers’ legs, make them come back for spell after spell, demoralise the attack. Yet the mind can get ahead of you. Either you don’t trust your defence or you can’t hold your mind, and you start doing things you know are not right.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. This was not the usual Australian road. Pujara said it took him two sessions to figure out what shots he can play on this pitch. And we will come back to that soon. Also the bowling from Australia was great execution of Test-match plans. Bowl full but not half-volleys. Bowl fast. Exploit the occasional spongy bounce and the occasional seam movement. Cricviz data says the average pace of 144.46 ks over the first 10 overs was Australia’s fastest in a year, and the average pace of 142.78 over 25 overs was the fastest by any team this year.
Then there was a new plan to Virat Kohli. Teams target him in the channel outside off when he first walks in, but here he was tucked up and made to play every ball without any room. Of the 16 balls bowled at him, two were short balls, 12 straight at him with square leg plugging the single, and only two were bowled outside off. Kohli had a waft at the second of the sucker balls; it is a plan he will look to counter in the rest of the series.
“Those who have not seen Pujara bat with tail in domestic cricket are the most surprised at this aspect of Pujara’s game: the manipulation of the strike, the big hits; an IPL joke always crops up. Imagine watching highlights with a voiceover that is stunned at watching what you have been doing all your life.”
Every other specialist batsman played a bad shot. Asked a question, each of them responded with shots. You wondered if they didn’t trust their defence or if they couldn’t hold their mind. KL Rahul, bowled or lbw in his last eight innings, looked to play at everything. M Vijay kept fending at short balls, and then flayed at the full one. Ajinkya Rahane’s only response to Nathan Lyon evoked some of the hapless West Indies batsmen in India: just play your shots. Rohit Sharma gave it away after getting set. That after having little time to adjust to the bounce differential in Australia.
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Amid all the carnage one man kept trusting his defence, kept trying to understand the situation and conditions to play accordingly. This is what brings him under pressure, if not from the team then from the fans and commentators. “He is getting stuck,” it is said. “He is building the pressure on his partners.” Well, he is just batting, trying to negotiate the tough spell before he can capitalise on a softer ball and a tired attack. Pujara had a control rate of 85%, the joint-best with R Ashwin, whose entire innings was played against the old ball. He left alone 53 balls, 23 more than other specialist batsmen put together.
And when it was time to strike, he struck with great vengeance and furious anger, but only because he knew he needed to do so with only the long tail for company. And he took two sessions to know what he could play. Others began to do it in two balls at times.
Those who have not seen Pujara bat with tail in domestic cricket are the most surprised at this aspect of Pujara’s game: the manipulation of the strike, the big hits; an IPL joke always crops up. Imagine watching highlights with a voiceover that is stunned at watching what you have been doing all your life.
Hopefully his team-mates aren’t. Thanks to him, they still have a fair chance. They themselves have been at the receiving end of a lost toss and a middling total by an opposition. They know it best how difficult it can be to chase. They will want their bowlers to make sure Australia are chasing a decent total and not 120-odd. They will want to exploit the weakened batting. They will be thinking all this because one man refused to play shots and chose to understand and play according to the situation. Never forget the Commandment of Che.