SYDNEY: Irrepressible Cheteshwar Pujara stroked his third century of the summer here at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday to put India in a commanding position in the decisive fourth and final Test as they strive for an historic series win in Australia.
At stumps on day one, they were 303 for four with the rock-like number three not out 130 and Hanuma Vihari on 39. Mayank Agarwal made 77, with Josh Hazlewood the best of the bowlers with 2-51.
After toiling on a hot Sydney day, Australia were rewarded with the wickets of KL Rahul, Agarwal, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, but despite a five-pronged attack the key scalp of Pujara remained elusive.
The visitors lead the series 2-1 after winning the opening clash in Adelaide and the third one in Melbourne. Australia claimed victory in Perth.
If India, the world’s top-ranked nation, win or draw in Sydney they will clinch a first-ever series in Australia since they began touring Down Under in 1947-48.
“We are very happy, although we would have liked to be only three down. That said 300 for four on the first day, choosing to bat, I think we are in a great position,” said Agarwal, who paid tribute to Pujara.
“It’s great to watch him bat from the other end, the way he grinds the bowlers. He understands his strengths and he sticks with that. He’s very tight with his defence and just waits for the bad ball to come.”
Marnus Labuschagne, who in a surprise throw of the dice was picked by Australia to be their number three, said his team must learn from Pujara.
“He was very classy. I think it’s something I personally can take a lot from. He has just batted a lot of time and that’s what we’re going to need to do,” he said.
Labuschagne added that Australia were confident they could get early breakthroughs on Friday and “hopefully get them out for under 400”.
Kohli again won the toss and Australia got an early breakthrough with Hazlewood tempting Rahul into a defensive shot that took a outside edge and carried to Shaun Marsh at slip, and he was gone for nine.
But that only brought the stoic Pujara to the crease and like he has done all series, the 68-Test veteran dug in and blunted the new ball.
He survived a review decision for caught behind on 12, but otherwise gave a masterclass.
In another innings of patience and concentration, he slowly picked off runs to bring up his 18th Test century from 199 balls, with 13 boundaries.
The methodical 30-year-old has been by far the best batsman from either side across the series and his ton followed a stellar 123 in Adelaide and 106 in Melbourne.
Playing in only his second Test, the Bangalore-born Agarwal was also impressive.
He was targeted with bouncers and struck on the helmet but held firm, reinforcing his credentials after a solid debut in Melbourne.
He worked hard to make his second Test 50 in only three innings by caressing a Mitchell Starc delivery through the covers for four.
But he began to open up with the bat and after hitting Nathan Lyon for six to bring up his highest Test score of 77, attempted to do the same from the next delivery and was caught by Starc at long-on.
Master batsman Kohli was welcomed by boos from a section of the crowd and immediately silenced them with an exquisite four off Hazlewood.
But after a restrained 23 Hazlewood snared him in the first over after tea, caught behind by wicketkeeper Tim Paine.
Vice-captain Rahane looked good in making his way to 18, but a Starc bouncer caught him off guard and Paine collected another catch.
For Paine, it was the sixth toss he had lost in seven Tests and it could prove costly on a Sydney Cricket Ground pitch expected to be conducive to spin as it wears.
When Australia bat, they will have a new-look opening pair with Usman Khawaja padding up with Marcus Harris after the under-performing Aaron Finch was axed.
INDIA (1st Innings): M. Agarwal c Starc b Lyon 77 K.L. Rahul c S.Marsh b Hazlewood 9 C. Pujara not out 130 V. Kohli c Paine b Hazlewood 23 A. Rahane c Paine b Starc 18 H. Vihari not out 39 EXTRAS (LB-2, W-5) 7 TOTAL (for four wkts, 90 overs) 303 TO BAT: Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah FALL OF WKTS: 1-10, 2-126, 3-180, 4-228 BOWLING (to-date): Starc 18-0-75-1; Hazlewood 20-7-51-2; Cummins 19-3-62-0; Lyon 29-5-88-1; Labuschagne 4-0-25-0 AUSTRALIA: Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Peter Handscomb, Tim Paine, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Starc UMPIRES: Richard Kettleborough, Ian Gould (both England) TV UMPIRE: Marais Erasmus (South Africa) MATCH REFEREE: Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe)
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2019