"He should have scored more runs." "Lack of intent." "Needed to be a bit more proactive." "Scared to play a shot." "Slack, lacklustre batting."
This isn't the first time that such phrases have been used to describe Cheteshwar Pujara's batting approach when India have been folded for undesirable totals. He scored a half-century off 176 balls, the slowest in his Test career, before being dismissed by Pat Cummins with an exactly similar unplayable ball that has troubled him in this series, which climbed over the off stump and took the thick outside edge.
During his stay at the crease, India lost two wickets on the third morning for 84 runs in 34 overs (206 balls). Pujara scored 33 off 91 balls. Ajinkya Rahane, his partner at the start of the day, resuming from his 5 off 40, added 17 more to his score in 30 deliveries. Mitchell Starc and Cummins had resolved to the short-ball ploy against the stand-in skipper. He was on back foot and he looked positive. But was left undone by a delivery that seamed in massively and did not bounce as much as Rahane expected. He looked to play it through the off side, but the ball jagged back into Rahane and he chopped it onto the stumps. Was it Pujara's fault? It was a combination of good bowling and some luck, none of which had anything to do with Pujara's batting or his strike rate.
Hanuma Vihari walked in next and scored four runs, off 38 balls. He was dismissed run out, probably the last form of dismissal that a batsman could afford, making a needless call for a single. Was it Pujara's fault? He was at the non-striker's end and it was Vihari's call to make, one usually made following how far the ball is played, fielder's placement, one's ability to make it to the other end of the crease within time, and of course match situation.
India, until the ball before Vihari's dismissal, was well set with 142 off 67.1 overs, 196 runs behind Australia's first innings total and six wickets in hand. But two errors from two batsmen cost India dearly none of which had anything to do with Pujara, who was the only batsman who survived the first session. And it was due to his "approach", the one that had worked successfully for India in the previous tour.
The method is to tire out the bowlers by spending more time in the middle. It had worked in his previous tour Down Under where he had faced the most number of balls by a visiting batsman. Did it trouble India then? Or any other game in his Test career?
And for those questioning his intent, Pujara scored 33 runs of his half-century were scored against spinners, off 50 balls, implying a strike rate of 66. The remaining 17 came against one of the best pace attacks in world cricket, off 126 balls. Eight of those runs were scored straight down the ground. Pujara also scored nine runs against 10 fuller deliveries that came against this pace attack. The rest were on good and short length. Pujara made Australia work for his wickets, just like he had done in the previous tour and in the previous Test in Melbourne alongside Shubman Gill. And during his stay, India went from 70 to 195.
Eventually, it was patience that killed patience. Cummins kept bowling that line around off stump, before managing to extract some bounce off the track that forced Pujara to err.
And with that, Cummins added to the debate surrounding Pujara's strike rate.
"At one stage he had been out there for 200 balls or 150 balls and I looked up there thinking they are still 200 away from our first-innings total," Cummins said after the day's play. "So if things go that way and we can keep bowling well, you're not overly bothered. He is someone you know you are going have to bowl a lot at. I think we got our head around that this series, for him to score runs we are going to make it as hard as possible. Whether he bats 200 or 300 balls, just try and bowl good ball after good ball, and challenge both sides of his bat."
Deferring from the debate, Pujara opined that Australia's relentless and accurate bowling made the difference.
"I thought they bowled good lines and lengths, they had a fair idea of this pitch," Pujara said. "I think we should give credit to the way they bowled. I felt that they didn't give too many loose balls. If you look at our bowling line-up, there are guys playing their first and second Test match. So there are learning. They will get better. We are slightly inexperienced, but I think they will get better day by day. It is a good opportunity for them to learn and get better at what they are doing. I am sure they will learn from this."
Pujara further steered away from making a comment on if any advice was given to him regarding his scoring rate from the team management.
"If we look at the way our innings was progressing, we were in a comfortable position till I got out," he said. "I think we were 180 for 4 [at one point] and we were doing well. So things turned around when Rishabh and I got out. Then we didn't score many after that. I thought losing Rishabh was a turnaround. If we had another partnership there, we would have definitely put on a decent total on the board. Our aim was to get 330-340 but yes we missed out. Losing Ajinkya Rahane early was a big blow, but we recovered from there and there was a good partnership with Rishabh."
Pujara has become a master of this form of batting, the old-school grinding it out all through the day's play, and no part of it has affected India ever in any of the Tests he has been part of. But questioning his "intent" and asking him to up his scoring rate will only affect the team, as it has previously done in the 2018 South Africa tour when Virat Kohli was left unconvinced by his approach which resulted in back-to-back run-outs. Unless India would want that, Pujara should be left to his own mastery.