How Pujara and Rahane repelled Lyon
Opposite the practice area at the JSCA International Stadium is a staircase leading up to one of the stands. Ascending one level gives you a terrific view of the nets, with an elevated, square-on view of the batsmen. Imagine standing atop a watch tower at cover point.
It is a view you hardly see on TV and the one restricted to the cheaper seats in most stadiums because from here it is near impossible to judge the line of the ball and the extent of swing, seam or turn accurately. But it gives you such insights into a batsman's technique.
India's net sessions on the two days leading up to the third Test against Australia offered an excellent opportunity to watch Ajinkya Rahane's footwork against the spinners. Cat-like, nimble, fully forward or fully back. As has mostly been the case since he lowered his stance - a move that contributed to his twin hundreds in the Delhi Test against South Africa in 2015. His head was right on top of the ball when he stretched forward to defend.
When Cheteshwar Pujara batted against seam, it was possible to observe how his hands never once strayed even six inches in front of his body when he defended the ball. He grips his bat in an unusual manner, his top hand turned so far around the handle that the back of his hand - rather than his knuckles as is the norm - faces the bowler. While this can hamper his freedom while driving, it ensures he plays closer to his body, and later than most batsmen on the planet. His defensive bat is a cushion that invariably drops the ball by his feet.
Just over a week ago, these skills played their part in steering India through what has so far been the only wicketless session of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Through the course of their 118-run fifth-wicket partnership, Rahane and Pujara turned the Bengaluru Test around, slowly, calmly, with growing authority.
The partnership also showcased two batsmen coming to grips with a bowler who had caused them and their team all kinds of problems the last time they had faced him. Nathan Lyon had dismissed both Pujara and Rahane while taking eight wickets in the first innings, and while there were moments of discomfort in the second innings too - Pujara was dropped on 4 - both men grew increasingly at ease, eventually keeping Lyon out for a combined 131 wicketless balls.
On Wednesday, the eve of the Ranchi Test, India captain Virat Kohli revealed the technical adjustments the two batsmen had made to overcome Lyon.
"I saw Pujara opening up his stance, which was an apt adjustment for him to give himself more space to play the ball," Kohli said. "Ajinkya, again, getting inside the line of the ball and not playing through the covers. I think those are the small adjustments. KL [Rahul, who made fifties in both innings] is batting well anyway but I think those two guys stepped up their game and found a way to score runs on a difficult wicket.
"And as I mentioned, that was the difference between winning a game and probably not winning it because there could have been only two results, the draw wasn't there on the cards anyway. Such minor things can make massive differences in the game. We saw that and credit to those two guys to get runs on that sort of wicket."
Armed with Kohli's insights, it was rewarding to re-watch Pujara's 92 and Rahane's 52 in Bengaluru.
Rahane had been stumped in the first innings, while looking to step out and drive Lyon inside-out. It is a shot he plays well, but on this occasion, looking for non-existent turn, he had simply swished at thin air. In the second innings, he changed his guard: his back toe was in line with off stump rather than between middle and off. This brought him closer to the line of the ball, and ensured he was playing with the spin more often than not.
It also made the sweep an easier option: from his original guard, he would have had to plant his front leg a fair way across to get his pad outside the line of off stump, thereby cramping him up and minimising the arc into which he could hit the ball. From his new off-stump guard, he did not have to stretch as far across to get close to the ball and get his front pad outside the line of off stump. He could be better balanced and sweep the same delivery square or fine, depending on the field.
The sweeps played their part in forcing Lyon to bowl wider, returning to Rahane the scoring option he had initially denied himself - the push or drive into the covers. At one point, the ease with which Rahane was handling him made Lyon switch to bowling around the wicket. This, for India, represented a small victory over a bowler who had tasted so much success bowling into the footmarks outside the right-handers' off stump.
A ball that spat out of these footmarks had led to Pujara's first-innings dismissal, caught bat-pad. In his stance, Pujara's feet had been aligned to point straight down the pitch, but a front-and-across trigger movement then left him closed-off and cramped up when the ball turned and bounced more than expected.
By opening his stance, Pujara gave himself a better chance of negotiating Lyon's extra bounce out of the rough. There were at least two occasions when this adjustment proved useful. Coupled with his usual ability to play the ball late and close to his body, the offbreaks that jumped at him now hit the part of the glove facing the bowler rather than that facing the fielders at short leg or leg gully.
Being chest-on also made it easier for Pujara to play the pull should Lyon drop the ball marginally short. From the five times he played the shot, he collected three singles, a boundary and inside-edged a ball that kept low onto his pads.
It wasn't all plain sailing, of course. The slightly open stance may well have been a factor in Pujara, twice, playing inside the line of the ball and therefore outside-edging Lyon. It is possible that due to the change in his alignment, Pujara's bat came down at an angle - from wide slip towards mid-on - on both occasions leaving him vulnerable. Had Smith snaffled up the slip catch he offered, Pujara's open stance may well have come in for criticism rather than praise. Every little technical adjustment solves one problem while potentially creating another.
On a difficult pitch, bowlers were always likely to create chances, no matter how ingenious a batsman's plans might be. Smith, a beneficiary of multiple dropped catches while scoring a second-innings hundred in the Pune Test, knew this well. He had compiled the technical masterclass of the first Test, by playing for Ravindra Jadeja's straighter one, minimising the risk of bowled and lbw, and not worrying about getting beaten on the outside edge.
Pujara and Rahane had matched him with their own masterclass in Bengaluru. With spin likely to remain the dominant theme of the series, who will follow them up in Ranchi?
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo