Pujara is on top of his game – and so high on confidence that he doesn’t mind getting to a Test hundred with a pulled six over midwicket. © BCCI

Pujara is on top of his game – and so high on confidence that he doesn’t mind getting to a Test hundred with a pulled six over midwicket. © BCCI

Cheteshwar Pujara had a most forgettable 2014. Between February and December of that year, he went without a century for 20 Test innings – which only fetched him two fifties – and went out of the Test XI after the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne when the team management finally ran out of patience.

It wasn’t until August of the following year that, fortuitously, Pujara made a return to the playing XI. India went to Sri Lanka with three specialist openers. By the time the series wended to the decider at the SSC ground in Colombo, that number had whittled down to one following injuries to M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan. Pujara was pitch-forked into the unfamiliar role of opener alongside KL Rahul, and  carried his bat for an unbeaten 145 in the first-innings in difficult conditions in a series-winning cause.

That unbeaten century bought him some time, but just one half-century in six innings in the home series against South Africa at home meant by the time India went to the Caribbean, Pujara was again battling inner demons and a crisis of confidence. Scores of 16 and 46 followed and his career seemed to be at the cross-roads until a chat with Anil Kumble brought about a tremendous turnaround in his fortunes.

Since the start of the New Zealand series at home in September, Pujara has struck three centuries and as many half-centuries in nine innings. Crucially, he has strung together several important partnerships at the top of the tree, mostly with M Vijay and with Virat Kohli, his skipper.

Pujara has been involved in 17 hundred stands in Test cricket – six of those with Vijay, and four alongside Kohli. Vijay and Kohli are entirely different characters and types of batsmen. For Pujara to be involved in stands of 209 (Rajkot) with Vijay and 226 with Kohli on day one of the second Test against England at the ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium on Thursday (November 17) testify to his versatility and his ability to bat long and deep with different partners without losing sight of the common goal and the larger picture.

Returned to his favoured No. 3 position, Pujara is a massively influential cog in the Indian batting wheel. Given that India have struggled for meaningful starts, perhaps because they have had numerous different opening combos due to injuries, Pujara has often had to come in early and blunt the threat of the new ball, then bed himself in so that the stroke-makers after him can paint pretty pictures. It is a role that comes naturally to him; Pujara is no slouch when it comes to upping the pace once he is past 50 or 60, but he seldom draws gasps of admiration and glares of envy from teammates and opposition alike. That is pretty much the domain of the Kohlis and the Rohit Sharmas. Pujara is an efficient rather than a mesmeric beast, his strokeplay more laboured than arresting.

“I spoke to Anil bhai after the West Indies series and even during the New Zealand series. What he told me was that I had been scoring a lot of runs in domestic cricket, even in international matches. The way I started off in the New Zealand series, I got 50s, 60s and 70s, and then I was missing out on the 100s. So what he told me is that there was nothing wrong with the way I was batting, and probably the area I can improve on is the intent, and that’s what I worked on.”

On Thursday, he had to play second fiddle to the magic that was cascading off Kohli’s willow at the other end. Pujara held his own, both in terms of intent and quantum, but there is something about Kohli that Pujara can never aspire to match. And, to be honest, he won’t aspire to match either. He is his own man, warts and all, though he is quick to admit that Kumble the head coach has played a huge part in some of the warts being eradicated.

“I’ve not changed much as far as technique is concerned, it’s just the intent,” he said on Thursday evening, after his third hundred in as many Tests. That intent, as he put it, or the lack of it was often held against him – that he took too much time to score his runs, that he wasn’t aggressive or enterprising enough, that he allowed the game to drift. It is unlikely that it wouldn’t have impacted his psyche, though Kumble moved swiftly to rid his mind of the gremlins by famously proclaiming that as far as he was concerned, only bowlers belonged in the same breath as strike-rates.

“I spoke to Anil bhai after the West Indies series and even during the New Zealand series. What he told me was that I had been scoring a lot of runs in domestic cricket, even in international matches. The way I started off in the New Zealand series, I got 50s, 60s and 70s, and then I was missing out on the 100s. So what he told me is that there was nothing wrong with the way I was batting, and probably the area I can improve on is the intent, and that’s what I worked on.”

That work is clearly paying off, given his recent run of scores. But as much as the scores and his approach, what has stood out is how composed, calm, confident and tall he has stood at the crease, a man fully at peace with himself and who is performing with the security and the knowledge that he has the backing of the men that matter.

Pujara is a pretty uncomplicated personality, happiest batting in the middle and gently nicking and bleeding the bowling dry, but he is also a wonderful ally, as his recent trysts with Vijay and Kohli have reiterated. His approach, he insists, doesn’t change with players; it has everything to do with situations and the conditions.

“When you’re playing Test cricket, especially when I’m batting at the top of the order, my approach doesn’t change,” he pointed out. “But obviously, we discuss about how to bat in a particular situation. And there was a time (today) when myself and Virat spoke that we needed to accelerate a little bit, and we were able to accelerate. We wanted to dominate at one particular time. It’s about just reading the game and then batting according to the situation, rather than just worrying about who the partner is.

“Obviously, I’ve played with all the players at the junior level, and with some of them I’ve played Under-19 cricket, and with some of them I’ve played for the India A team. So I know most of the guys really well. When it comes to batting with them, I think it’s not just about understanding the partner, it’s also about understanding the situation, which is more important.”

England, too, are beginning to understand a few things. They got a little taste of Pujara when he scored 206 not out and 135 in the first two Tests of a four-match series in India in 2012-13. The Pujara they saw in England in 2014 was a totally different batsman, repeatedly undone by the ball coming in and managing a sole fifty in eight innings in that series. If they thought they would find a similarly under-achieving, timid willow-wielder this time around, they have been badly mistaken. This is a man on top of his game – and so high on confidence that he doesn’t mind getting to a Test hundred with a pulled six over midwicket, a la Virender Sehwag.