On Friday, Cheteshwar Pujara played an innings which will stay in the memory of every Indian cricket fan for a long long time. Having seen Virat Kohli dominate the series with his flowing drives and effortless skill up until now, it was refreshing to see that there is still room for players moulded in the ilk of India’s current Number 3 who takes his own time to get into the groove and ‘get going’.
Coming in to bat at the fall of KL Rahul’s wicket in the 8th over, Pujara was his usual bag of nerves and awkwardly negotiated a few deliveries before finally getting off the mark off a rare freebie offered by James Anderson. His first boundary came after negotiating 35 testing deliveries, with skipper Kohli for company at the crease.
On a day when the captain and vice-captain of the side gifted their wickets away while trying to be ‘positive’, Pujara stuck to his guns and ultimately reaped the rewards of going through the hard grind and putting a price on his wicket. It was such a joy watching the ‘not so talented’ triumph in particularly testing conditions at the Rose Bowl in Southampton.
Unlike the Virat Kohlis, Ajinkya Rahanes, Shikhar Dhawans and Rohit Sharmas who thrive on fair and strokeplay, runs have been at a premium for Pujara throughout his career. He will never set a ground on first, perhaps even inducing a lot of yawns among the spectators. His shots rarely run away to the boundary. Watching Pujara hit in the air or over the field is even rarer. Stealing a quick single is never on. There are no tattoos on his body. In short, there is absolutely nothing that will make you sit up, gasp in admiration and take notice of the man.
He just walks out to bat, does his job and leaves. That is it! But the thing that works in the 29-year-old’s favour is that despite his limitations, Pujara is never unfazed and never shies away from a challenge. Also, it is his love for the game which is admirable. An optional practice session, he’ll be there. A chance to go play in English county cricket, Pujara will take it.
Pujara’s knock of 132 not out was a testament to the fact that sheer grit and hard work can triumph. The innings had shades of what Rahul Dravid did for most part of the first decade of this century and VVS Laxman‘s masterly ability of batting with the tail and bailing his side out of a precarious situation.
Hardik Pandya fell into a classic Moeen Ali trap, Ravichandran Ashwin threw his wicket away while playing a reverse sweep of all shots and Mohammad Shami played like Mohammad Shami does. The ultra-aggressive Rishabh Pant took a leaf out of Pujara’s books and curbed his natural instincts to adopt a cautious approach. He was out in the middle for 29 deliveries, did not score a run and ultimately perished for a 30-ball duck.
While the others were falling like nine pins, England soon discovered that Pujara was in no mood to commit hara-kiri like his teammates. Hell, he even forced a stalwart like Jimmy Anderson to give up on swinging the ball and bowl bouncers around his waist with as many as three fielders in the deep on the leg side.
Despite carrying his bat and driving India to a slender lead, albeit from a rather hopeless position at one stage, it was not a flawless knock by any means as there were blows to the helmet and the body. The physio was called out on more than one occasion but Pujara carried on and batted like a man possessed, particularly towards the end when he even unleashed an array of strokes to draw loud cheers from Indian supporters in the ground. Captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri were seen smiling and applauding from the dressing room.
The recognition must have done wonders for Pujara’s confidence as he has been on a tight rope when it comes to his place in the Indian Test side. He even failed to make it to the playing eleven in the series opener at Edgbaston and has also been accused of playing too slowly and letting the team down with his lowly strike-rates.
Nonetheless, Pujara has only gotten better as this series has progressed and India will need him to be at the top of his game for the next three crucial innings which remain on this tour and an equally important Australian sojourn this winter.
Given his current form and the penchant for runs, Kohli will lead the scoring charts on most days and take the plaudits but Pujara, in this form, is as important as his captain to the Indian cause, if not more.
Pujara unbeaten 132 on Friday was a timeless classic and will be cherished for ages. As fans of Indian cricket, we hope that he continues to churn out the runs and leads his side to many famous wins in the days to come.
Well played, Che. Keep going.
WATCH: Cheteshwar Pujara’s classy century against Sri Lanka