That’s been Cheteshwar Pujara’s scorecard at the five first-time Test venues so far this home season. The four ticks indicate four hundreds. It’s only the ‘poor’ Pune minefield that was spared the Saurashtra batsman’s munificence as he was forced to settle for scores of 6 and 31.
The Indore tick was a massive one for the Test No. 3. He had gone 14 innings without a hundred even though he had warmed up nicely for that final Test of three against New Zealand with half-centuries in three of his five previous innings. In the preceding Test series, in the Caribbean in July-August, Pujara had temporarily lost his place in the playing XI because his strike-rate was held against him. The second-innings 101 not out in Indore, with India pressing for a declaration, came off 148 deliveries at 68.24. The strike-rate bogey hasn’t reared its ugly head again.
Pujara’s career appeared at the crossroads in the immediacy of the tour of Australia in 2014-15. After just one half-century in six outings, he was jettisoned for the final Test in Sydney, and didn’t figure in the playing XI for the one-off Test against Bangladesh away and the first two Tests in Sri Lanka. An unbeaten 145 in the final Test at the SSC as he carried his bat in the unfamiliar role of opener following injuries to two regular openers brought him back in favour, but when the strike-rate issue threatened to derail him, Anil Kumble rose staunchly to his defence. “As far as I know, strike-rates in Test matches have always been about bowlers, not about batsmen,” the India coach had said on the team’s return from the West Indies. It was just the gentle shot in the arm – given the seemingly contagious shoulder injuries to India’s top-order batsmen, it has to be no more than gentle – that Pujara needed.
Pujara has been extraordinary this home season. Including his unbeaten 130 on the third day of the third Test at the JSCA International Stadium on Saturday (March 18), he has amassed 1187 runs from 21 innings at 65.94, with those four hundreds and seven further knocks between 50 and 99. In a season where the openers have largely failed to fire in tandem, he has had to step in to fill the breach early in the piece against quality new-ball attacks from New Zealand, England, and now Australia, and he has handled nearly every challenge with admirable aplomb.
Gifted with the ability to bat long hours without losing concentration, a wide array of strokes and, most crucially, a temperament that is just what Test cricket demands, Pujara is every captain’s delight. If Virat Kohli harboured initial misgivings at all about Pujara’s value at No. 3, those thoughts will rapidly have escaped the Indian captain’s mind now. India without Pujara’s reassuring presence won’t be the same; it is debatable if Kohli would have made all those double-hundreds either this season if Pujara hadn’t been around to stitch together partnerships with him.
David Saker, the Australian assistant coach, termed Pujara’s innings on Saturday as ‘fantastic’. It wasn’t in the realms of fantasy, though; this was a master craftsman going about his work diligently, oblivious to the goings-on around him, unfussed by the occasional ball scooting through, untouched by the odd uneven bounce, so much in his own cocoon that even the Australians, never chary of use of the lip, stopped trying to verbally intimidate him.
Pujara doesn’t cut the most gainly figure at the batting crease. He is not anywhere near as twitchy as Steven Smith, say, but his wide stance and his pronounced bottom-handed grip are surely not out of any coaching manual. What is, is his balance, the stillness of his head, the alignment of his feet, the arc the blade makes as it comes down from behind the stumps.
A wonderful player of spin because he instinctively grasps length, Pujara was quick on his feet in either stepping out or going right back to Steve O’Keefe and Nathan Lyon. Equally impressive was his handling of Josh Hazlewood and a breathing-fire Pat Cummins. Even accounting for the slowness of the track, he was right behind the line of the ball, and whenever the ball was dug in short, he was quicksilver in dropping his hands to keep his bat and gloves out of harm’s way. And, if the short ball followed him, then because his eyes were always on the cherry, he could also sway out of the way without losing poise or composure.
He wasn’t just all watchful, circumspect defence, however. Whippy on-drives and wristy punches off the back foot between mid-on and midwicket drove Australia ragged, while he presented the maker’s name whenever he crashed the ball down the ground. The peachiest of all was the Cummins cover-drive that tracer-bulleted to the fence and took him to 100, the left foot right out to the pitch of the ball, the bat an extension of lovely hands, the ball hit and yet caressed, the admittedly vast gap found with effortless ease.
As the day progressed and Australia swarmed around the Indians with the lower order somewhat exposed, the Pujara bat became such a barn-door that the new bat-size laws might well encourage measuring his normal-sized willow. Australia almost gave up trying to get him out as the evening wore on. There couldn’t have been a better compliment.
Pujara displayed that one commodity in great measure that his partner in the second-wicket stand of 102, M Vijay, did not – situational awareness. In the morning with the onus on consolidation as India started on 120 for 1 chasing Australia’s 451, the onus was on crease-occupation. His first 100 balls produced just 23 and he reached his fifty off 155, but 50 to 100 was a breeze, off just 59 deliveries with seven further boundaries.
Post Karun Nair’s dismissal in the final session which reduced India to 320 for 5, Pujara went back to occupying the crease. Then 112 from 258 deliveries, Pujara only scored 18 more runs from his next 70 deliveries to make sure he was unconquered at close. With Nair and then R Ashwin’s scalps, Australia were looking to make further inroads; Pujara was wise to the fact that the opposition needed to kept on the park for as long as possible, the Indian total needed to get close to the Aussie mountain. The mix of runs and time had to be judicious; Pujara got that too perfectly right.
Even though he has already spent seven minutes shy of seven hours in the middle, it is unlikely that Pujara will approach the task any differently on Sunday morning. India are still 91 short, but in Wriddhiman Saha, Pujara has a like ally when it comes to grit. Australia will come hard at him in the morning, but Pujara won’t be fazed. Act two of the irresistible force v the immovable object will be fascinating.