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Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant: the yin and yang of India’s greatest away win

by Rohit Sankar 5 minute read

Two contrasting knocks, ones that led India down two separate paths until the accelerated final hour, eventually led to the greatest overseas win India have ever scripted, writes Rohit Sankar.

Josh Hazlewood is annoyed.

Cheteshwar Pujara had just sent him back to his mark after a butterfly distracted him, forcing him to pull out at the last minute. The next delivery is a bouncer that rattles Pujara’s helmet. The Australian stands there, stares at Pujara’s misery and quips, “see that one?”

The next delivery is on off-stump, short of a length, Pujara gets right behind it and defends in front of his eyes.

***
Nathan Lyon is bewildered.

The ball hits a crack, turns a mile and rests in the hands of Steve Smith at first slip. Lyon throws Rishabh Pant a smile. The Australian knows he is in the game. Pant returns the smile, hardly blinking. Next delivery, he looks to land the ball on that very spot. Pant steps out, has a hard slosh at it and sends it over wide mid-on for six.

***
India had three options heading into day five, two of which were pretty straightforward: go all out for a win or block the leather off the ball twice. The third stemmed from the intrinsic qualities of their batting line-up, which, in particular, had two freaks who were polar opposites of each other, yet complemented the other immaculately.

Cheteshwar Pujara and Rishabh Pant are as antithetical as they come; one plays out time, the other plays as though he has little time. Yet, one common word has haunted the career of the two Indian batsmen: intent. Pujara is accused of lacking it. Pant is accused of having superfluous amounts of it.

The two have time and again thwarted criticism of their tendentious approaches with performances. It was nothing different this series. Two of Pujara’s three slowest half-centuries in Test cricket before the Gabba Test came in this series. Pant, after being dropped for the first Test, slammed his way to a rip-roaring 97 in the second innings at the SCG to put India in a winning position. He had nine successive scores of 25 or more in Australia heading into the final Test.

If India were to flaunt the luxury of a third option, which most teams can merely dream of having, Pujara and Pant had to do their thing, warding off external noise to do what they do every single time. It wouldn’t come easy. “Rip the helmet off…” — a merciless Shane Warne roared on air as Pujara brick-batted everything thrown at him. The Aussies did just that.

Pujara copped blows — 11 of them — ducked under bumpers, but never let his concentration dip even for a miniscule of a second to let the Australians on top of him. The familiar jibes at his intent, or the lack of it, resumed as Shubman Gill brandished his talent with disdain and showed the world what India’s future could look like. While Gill raced into his 70s, Pujara had faced 100 balls for 11 runs.

As Gill upped the tempo, Pujara contributed his bit with a slashed four off Starc to complete a 20-run over. Gill was soon gone, but Rahane waltzed in to bash his way into the 20s at over a run-a-ball before throwing it away. Pujara remained unflinched through it all, working into his zen mode, his sight well set on locking his end up should the worse happen.

Rishabh Pant isn’t opposed to the Pujara way. He is just different with his natural proclivity to attack. When he walks in at 167-3, India are just over the halfway mark in pursuit of the target, and Pujara has faced nearly half the number of balls India have faced in the innings.

In the next few hours, India would go about their batting in two worlds: in Pujara’s world, they were bending their backs, placing the body on the line and fighting the world’s best pace attack for a draw; in Pant’s, they were mocking the Aussie attack, using their bat like swords and galloping down at the target.

There’s a reason opposites are drawn to each other. They see qualities they like to have in themselves in the other. Pujara would have ideally liked a bit of Pant’s pompousness. Pant would, in turn, won’t mind a bit of Pujara’s zen-mode. They can’t have either, so they instead go hand-in-hand, yet trudging different parallel paths, the top priority being averting defeat.

As soon as Pujara fell to Pat Cummins two balls after the second new ball was taken, India were left on the precipice. They had to take one route or the other and the safer one seemed Pujara’s, but the man himself wasn’t out there.

Instead, Pant took over the reins, showed there were no demons in the wicket to his partners and played his shots. Every block made and every blow copped turned into pristine drives, copious pulls, and once even an uncanny lap shot off Lyon. If India seemed to be gnawing away at balls previously, they were now gnawing away at the target with ease.

There were reverse swats missed and wild swings edged through the cordon, one of which nearly had him stumped. But, in Pant’s path, one strewn with thorns and pebbles that would ultimately lead to heaven, that is expected. This time, though, there was patience and perseverance, borrowed from the other path. He wasn’t going to throwing it away.

As he drove one through mid-off for four to spark off unprecedented celebrations and overpouring reactions, India had triumphed through not just the Pant way, but the Pujara way too. Without one, the other wouldn’t have been possible. Like yin and yang, a duality concept that says seemingly opposite forces might actually be complementary, the Pujara-Pant charm worked perfectly for India. Without the contrasting forces, there was only one result the Gabba could have thrown up, one that the world had become accustomed to in 32 years.

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