Australia v India Tests - Men
Pujara proves thorn in Australia's side
India No.3 Cheteshwar Pujara continues his incredible series with a century on day one
Andrew Ramsey at the SCG
3 January 2019, 11:01 PM AEST
A new year might have dawned, but there was a certain sense of sameness in the events that unfolded at the SCG, where India took an early hold on the fourth Test and an iron grip on history.
Virat Kohli won the toss; Cheteshwar Pujara posted a century as unadorned as it was unsurprising; Australia's bowlers toiled hard without assistance from conditions or fortune from above; India finished day one in charge at 4-303.
A more authoritative position than India was at the corresponding time of the previous Test in Melbourne (2-215 after a day), which they went on to win by 137 runs.
For all the focus on Kohli's theatrics and fame, it has been Pujara's 458 runs from three and a half Tests – supplemented by another clinical 130 not out today – that has underpinned his team's batting efforts and provided the crucial point of difference to his opponents.
He has scored more than twice as many runs as Australia's most productive batter this series (Travis Head), and has single-handedly negotiated almost 190 overs at the crease since the series began in Adelaide a month ago.
Which is more than Australia's batting lasted through the entirety of the Boxing Day Test, the conclusion of which saw the home team without a century maker in this Test summer to date.
It's not that Pujara's three centuries (to date) is a high watermark for an India batter in a Test series in Australia – his captain, Virat Kohli, scored four when touring here in 2014-15 as part of yet another unsuccessful campaign.
Even the 250 deliveries he's faced on hard, Australian pitches where India batters schooled on lower, slower Asian decks are supposed to struggle, is not unprecedented.
Rahul Dravid, the original 'Wall' of defiance, lasted a total of 1203 balls during the four-Test series against Steve Waugh's team in 2003-04, but neither was that sufficient to see his team to a series victory.
The glaring difference for Pujara as he's ground down Australia's four-man attack and any other part-timers unleashed against him, is that he's spent so much time in the middle that he's allowed his own seamers and spinners to rest-up between bowling commitments.
And it's the combination of patient, productive batting and incisive, disciplined bowling that has India on the doorstep of history, as they eye their first series win on Australia's turf.
Certainly, it will take a most extraordinary turn of events to alter the course of the fourth and final Domain Series match.
From the moment that the coin landed in Kohli's favour, the Test took on an ominously predictable tone.
Each of the three previous Tests in this Domain Series has been won by the team that was given the choice to dictate terms before a ball was bowled, and wisely opted to bat.
Of greater portent was the knowledge that, since he took over India's Test captaincy in the corresponding series against Australia four years ago, Kohli has never experienced defeat after winning the toss.
That sequence looked a little shaky when recalled opener KL Rahul fell in the day's second over – in precisely the manner he was likely to succumb, given the susceptibility in his batting that led to his axing after the second Test in Perth.
In three of his previous innings in this campaign, Rahul fell to Josh Hazlewood – twice caught in the slips cordon and once bowled – for an aggregate return of 48 runs.
Today he added nine to that tally in scarcely convincing fashion before he once again succumbed to Australia's vice-captain.
Lured forward by a delivery that seemed to be angling in at the right-hander, Rahul pushed hard in search of the ball and found sufficient bat's edge to land a catch in the lap of Shaun Marsh at slip.
If the Australians thought that had paved a path to India's middle and lower-order batting, the ensuing hour proved that to be misplaced.
Hardly a false stroke was induced as the new ball failed to swing in the air, and the SCG offered no assistance from its flat, friendly surface.
It took only six overs of the opening day before a tactical change was embraced – Pat Cummins replaced new-ball specialist Mitchell Starc and Australia reverted to the short-length bowling plans that announce nothing else is on offer.
There were a couple of occasions when the ball flew from the pitch and India's batters were caught short – most notably when Pujara copped a rattling blow to the back of his protective helmet that required a lengthy visit from team medicos before he resumed his innings.
However, there were demonstrably few occasions when the visitors looked likely to be caught out.
Instead, as they have done all series, India patiently soaked up the heat hurled at them and prepared to counter-attack when the bowlers wilted under Sydney's summer sun.
Or, in the case of rookie opener Mayank Agarwal, waited until spinner Nathan Lyon was brought into the attack and then took to him.
In only his second Test and following a hugely impressive debut in Melbourne last week, Agarwal looked to have a maiden Test century within his grasp as he twice danced down the pitch and lifted Lyon over the boundary rope at long-on.
The first of those strike hung so long in the heavy air that Starc thought he was a chance to haul in the catch before it narrowly eluded his outstretched left hand.
Emboldened rather than chastened by that near miss, Agarwal continued his bombardment until Lyon floated a delivery slightly slower, and marginally wider which saw the opener miscue his hefty strike and depart, in profligate circumstances, for 77.
The arrival of Kohli, to the accompaniment of mean-spirited hoots or high-spirited chants dependent upon the disparate biases, meant that any such wastefulness had been banished from the centre with Agarwal.
With the score already beyond 100 and with only a draw needed to grasp history, India's steely captain in company with their most reliable batter were not about to let that advantage slip through error or ego.
Not that Kohli could ever become benign, in the eye of battle.
His first scoring stroke, from the fourth ball he received from Hazlewood, was as exquisite a cover drive as this campaign has witnessed, and fairly hummed across the SCG outfield to the boundary.
For the most part, however, Kohli and Pujara were content to have the bowlers come at them, rather than chase a game they face no compulsion (other than combative pride) to win.
The only time the tempo threatened to lift was when occasional leg spinner Marnus Labuschagne was thrown the ball, and then had it repeatedly tossed back to him from fielders on the perimeter as he conceded three boundaries from his first over.
Which proved to be his only over of that spell, replaced by Hazlewood immediately after the tea break.
So keen was Kohli to get going again after that interval – which India took at 2-177 and in full control – that he was at the wicket well before the Australia team returned to the field, and began nonchalantly bouncing the match ball off the face of his bat while he waited.
But it was batting gloves rather than his warmed-up blade that cost him his wicket shortly after tea, caught down the leg side in a manner reminiscent of those late afternoon scenes triggered by Cummins in Melbourne.
Fears that India might undergo another leg-side collapse the equal of that which cost them four wickets for as many runs at the MCG were quelled by Pujara, initially in concert with Ajinkya Rahane.
When Rahane was caught behind, fending a snorting Starc bouncer away from his nose, the auxiliary role was taken up by allrounder Hanuma Vihari who appeared far more comfortable back among the middle-order, after opening in Melbourne.
Although his familiarity in facing the new ball came in handy late today when Australia's weary quicks returned, armed with the second of such, and they survived to resume their dominance tomorrow morning.
Australia XI: Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Peter Handscomb, Tim Paine (c,wk), Pat Cummins, Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood #AUSvIND— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 2, 2019
India XI: Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah #AUSvIND— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 2, 2019
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: India won by 31 runs
Dec 14-18: Australia won by 146 runs
Dec 26-30: India won by 137 runs
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar