The wise, old man born in our times. Cheteshwar Pujara was everything Australia didn’t want him to be today. The 30-year-old beat the daylights out of the hosts with his third hundred of the series, and his 18th overall in Tests, as India capitalised on winning the toss by racking up 303 for 4 at Stumps on Day 1 of the fourth and final Test in Sydney.
Pujara came to the crease in the second over, after KL Rahul’s latest edge to the slip cordon meant he’d set sail on the path to bunnyhood, becoming Josh Hazlewood’s wicket for the fourth time in Test cricket. Pujara met everything with a dead bat in the morning session, and had an able accomplice in Mayank Agarwal. The 27-year-old opener picked up his second half-century in as many Tests, scorching the off-side with his unbelievable punches through cover to make up for Pujara’s boring solidity at the other end.
The gorgeous strokes, though, paved the way for some tough runs for Mayank. He was peppered with short balls on either side of the lunch break, and his back-foot play looked circumspect, especially against Mitchell Starc’s pace and angle from over the wicket. He was even hit on the helmet by a rising short ball. Mayank’s fault lay in how he tried to hop and defend every short ball, unlike Pujara’s classical sways and ducks at the other end – notwithstanding a helmet blow he copped from Hazlewood. The opener managed to survive with soft hands though, staying back and playing the ball late until he had Nathan Lyon bowling to him. The hard work was done, he had hit a gorgeous straight six off Lyon’s first ball of the over when he wanted to do it again, and fell prey to greed at long-on.
Virat Kohli and Pujara survived rest of the afternoon session, batting for the most part like they did in Melbourne, where a slow-paced but solid 170-run stand set the match up for India. And amidst all the tough work under the sun, things unraveled further for Australia towards the end of that session, when Marnus Labuschagne, brought in as a leg-spinning all-rounder who bats at three, conceded three boundaries to Pujara off three long hops in an over, undoing hours of hard work in a matter of minutes.
Pujara had earned these cheap runs by nullifying Lyon to the hilt, using his feet and working singles in the absence of silly point – a fielder that’s worked against Pujara in the past but a fielder Lyon won’t adamantly have. There was nothing more that Lyon could have done in the absence of rough outside the right-hander’s off-stump, especially against a batsman who’s played him so well right through the series.
Australia produced the breakthrough soon after Tea, when Kohli was strangled down the leg side by a short ball from Josh Hazlewood. Ajinkya Rahane’s innings then assumed inflated importance, with his duel against Lyon, the bowler who’s troubled him the most, holding key. There wasn’t any reverse swing on offer – of course, as many eye-rolling critics would say after Newlands – which is why Mitchell Starc banged one short to Rahane, got the ball to kick up and brushed the glove on the way to the ‘keeper.
Hanuma Vihari’s quick-fire innings of 39 off 58 runs in the middle-order came as a relief, as he helped put on an unbeaten 75-run stand for the fifth wicket by the end of day’s play. Pujara breezed past 1000 deliveries in the series, got past the landmark, and grew more aggressive by the minute – as if outbatting Kohli in runs and run-rate wasn’t enough.
Kohli won a great toss, it must be said, and the courage to bat first on a green-tinged pitch had now given way to bowling last on a worryingly drying pitch against Australia, with two spinners in Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav to run in all day. And with Pujara’s masterclass headlining Day 1, the onus is now on Australia to deny India their first series win Down Under.
Brief scores: India 303/4 (Pujara 130*, Agarwal 77, Vihari 39*; Hazlewood 2-51) vs Australia.