In a rare show of rage, Cheteshwar Pujara shook his head and kept hitting the turf as he staggered back to the pavilion. Just eight overs and two balls of the morning had passed on, the ball was deviously spitting and spatting. Left-arm spinner Matthew Kuhnemann had removed the openers, when the most old-school of India’s batsman, Pujara, his 101 Tests build on steel and resolve, shaped to cut Nathan Lyon.
Perhaps, it might have been pure muscle memory or instinct. Subcontinental batsmen like to cut spinners off the stumps and from length. One of the finest of them was their coach Rahul Dravid himself, who was audacious enough to back-cut even the wizardly Muttiah Muralitharan. But his successors are not as gifted with neither the wrists or wisdom. This ball was pitched far from the off-stump, and at a cuttable length for subcontinental batsmen; Pujara is a fine exponent of the cut too.
The percentages would have favoured him. Except that his muscle memory reigned over batting wisdom.
Already, some balls were keeping low, some were leaping awkwardly, and his team had already lost their openers. Of all the batsmen you would expect to attempt a silly shot, Pujara was the least likeliest.
Yet, it was Pujara who embodied the shambolic collapse of India on Day One. He went too deep and then too hard at the ball that when the ball spun back like a flying saucer and skidded on, he could not escape from the self-imposed shackles.
He was squared up and watched in angst the ball scud under his bat to hit the stumps. His first reaction was to stare suspiciously at the pitch, before it dawned that the real culprit was his own shot selection. Like the sweep was to Australia in the second innings in Kotla, the cut was to India in the first innings in Indore, an ill-advised weapon of self-destruction. Soon after, he saw Shreyas Iyer and Ravindra Jadeja too perish attempting to cut, the latter undone by the slowness of the pitch and the former by the low bounce. You could blame the pitch for that; but you could equally blame the shot too.
The pitch, no doubt, was difficult to bat on, especially in the first session when it misbehaved like a drunken snake. Perhaps, the early moisture on the surface conspired brisk turn. Batting was not easy; but India’s batsmen did not make it easier for themselves either. Pujara and Co might have encountered countless such wickets and devised means to tame the devils. Some of Pujara’s finest knocks have arrived on spiteful tracks, Mumbai 2012 and Pune 2018 for example.
Iyer and Jadeja too could vouch for their mastery on turning tracks. This time, though, they let it psyche them. Add to the list an ungainly swipe from Rohit Sharma and it could be asserted this was largely a disaster of their own making. To lose your four best players of spin-bowling on a turner to horrific shots is suicidal.
Unusual haste seemed to grip them, as though the cracks would open up and consume them soon. It began with Sharma, who could have been out twice in the first over, but for the misjudgement of the umpire and the DRS-shyness of Steve Smith and friends. Mitchell Starc repeatedly harried and hustled him. The shimmy-swipe was his attempted release shot. Had common sense prevailed, he would have batted normally, after surviving the Starc-storm.
Collapses, often, have an irresistibly contagious quality that spreads like a plague. Even the usually level-headed Jadeja, promoted up the order, an acknowledgement of his sustained form over the years and fire-fighting ability, surrendered tamely. Moments after he escaped an lbw review—when playing on the back foot off Lyon again from around the stumps—he coiled to cut, but the ball arrived slowly. He too was so over-committed that he could not adjust his shot and ended up spooning the ball to short-cover.
The cut could be a productive shot against spinners on surfaces with consistent bounce. But it is hazardous when some balls were turning sharply, and some not; when some were bouncing, and some were not, and when you have not sized up the nature of the surface. The safest strokes were the leg-side nudges, the glides and deflections off the legs. In short, it was a deck for vertical-batted shots. But only Virat Kohli seemed to learn the lessons. Iyer had watched from the pavilion the maddening session unfold and the perils of the cut shot, yet he could not resist one when Kuhnemann pulled his length back. Like Pujara and Jadeja, he too went hard and bottom-edged the ball back onto the stumps and gasped in dejection. Later in the day, Marnus Labuschagne too chopped one onto his stumps only to be saved by Jadeja’s overstepping front leg, but thereafter he shelved the shot altogether and lasted for 91 balls.
All three stood rather tall and stiff when cutting, as opposed to slouching low to pick the ball so that they could always readjust their stroke if the ball kept low. Even the tall VVS Laxman would crouch low when cutting the spinners off the stumps, a delightful one when it is pulled off, and a silly one when it’s not. The bat face too would open only at the last second.
Even more appalling is that their dismissals were not part of an elaborate set-up. Pujara was only four balls old when he fatally cut Lyon, who was just into the second ball of his day. Iyer slashed at the second ball, and Jadeja was only nine-balls-old. These seemed like shots of panic, bereft of plan and purpose. Like Australia in the first two Tests, and like most tourists to these shores, they let the surface chew their smarts, induce doubts and wrack self-belief.
Like Australia in Delhi, they were deluded into believing that aggression was the best way out of trouble, and they hurled headlong into the abyss, partly of the pitch’s making and partly of their own. Pujara was not alone in venting out anger. So were his teammates, each cursing themselves as they set off on their long and desolate trudge to the pavilion on an utterly forgetful day.