Cheteshwar Pujara has not been part of India’s rise to the No. 1 Test ranking but he could help determine how long they stay there, after his outstanding 72 on debut set up a seven-wicket win. Guided in the end by Sachin Tendulkar, the hosts cruised to their target of 207 to confirm the 2-0 series triumph, while Australia slid to fifth of the ICC rankings for the first time, courtesy of another toothless bowling display.
When Virender Sehwag fell early in the chase, the match seemed to be heading for similar drama to the final day in Mohali, where the wounded 114-Test veteran VVS Laxman dragged his side over the line. That there was no similarly tense finish was due to the work of Pujara, who was in his first Test but showed the kind of confidence expected from an old hand.
Unexpectedly promoted to No. 3 following a first-innings effort that lasted three balls, Pujara betrayed no nerves and drove his third delivery handsomely to the cover boundary off Mitchell Johnson. The introduction of Nathan Hauritz brought out the best in Pujara, who used his feet brilliantly to the spinner and drove him through the gaps in a field that an apoplectic Shane Warne felt the need to tweet about from the opposite hemisphere.
There were some strange decisions from Ricky Ponting, not the least of which was the early elimination of all slips fielders for the fast men when Australia needed to put the pressure on India by taking wickets. And after Ben Hilfenhaus had Sehwag caught behind in the third over with a terrific ball that bounced sharply and jagged away, Pujara and M Vijay settled in for a lengthy partnership.
Their 72-run stand ended when Vijay was trapped lbw by Shane Watson for 37, the victim of a good delivery that angled in and seamed away. All that did was bring the first-innings double-centurion Tendulkar to the crease, and by the time Hauritz had his revenge on Pujara with a delivery that drifted past the edge and took off stump, India were only 61 runs from their goal.
Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who was demoted to No. 5 to accommodate Pujara, had little trouble completing the task and Tendulkar’s 53 not out – which included the winning runs paddle-swept fine against Hauritz – was a fitting finale to his magical series. The challenge for India’s selectors now is to work out how to reward Pujara, who won his opportunity only because of Laxman’s back injury.
It’s a happy problem to have; Australia’s issues are not so pleasant. Apart from losing all the Tests in a series for the first time in nearly 30 years, they will now enter the Ashes on the back of three consecutive defeats, a run that no Australian side has endured since West Indies were at their peak in 1988-89.
They have also dropped below England in the Test rankings, which is an abstract concept but one that will frustrate Ponting’s men as they aim to regain the urn. A more concrete measure of the side’s current state could be seen in the disappointing form of several key players.
Australia must also be concerned by the performances of several key players. It has been a difficult tour for Hauritz and that continued on the final day, when he was caressed out of the attack by Pujara before wincing at consecutive sixes slog-swept over long-on by Tendulkar. The Ashes will be a different challenge, but England’s batsmen will certainly have taken note of his lack of penetration.
Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey have had a tour they’d rather forget, while Marcus North’s ongoing pattern suggests he’ll be due for a century by about the third Ashes Test in Perth. And then there was Johnson, who worked hard at times on the trip but by the last day was sending Tim Paine diving on both sides of the wicket.
That Johnson and his fast-bowling colleagues did not trouble the Indians with swing was not exactly surprising, but Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth had proven earlier in the morning that movement was available. They mastered reverse-swing to collect the final three Australian wickets while limiting the tailenders to 21 runs in the morning.
Johnson lost his off stump leaving a Zaheer ball that jagged sharply back in, Hilfenhaus was mesmerised by the swing and was bowled for a duck, and Peter George fended a catch behind to end Australia’s innings on 223. The total was always going to be tough to defend, and so it proved.
So, India have confirmed their status as No. 1 – not that they were in danger of losing it. Now for Pujara to lock in his place at No. 3.