When New Zealand travelled to India in August 2012 for what was the earliest start to a Test match in the Indian season, the Indian team looked almost orphaned – battered in England and Australia, hit by the retirements of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and giving plenty of fodder for those wanted to add grist to the “India-doesn’t-care-for-Test-cricket” mill.
The season that began with an innings-and-115-run win over New Zealand in Hyderabad, plunged to the depths and then rose again, to leave India with an unexpectedly flattering record of ten Tests played and seven Tests won, with two losses and one draw.
Each match provided lasting memories, but perhaps because the crowning six-wicket win in New Delhi was the most recent, the one that abides is Cheteshwar Pujara driving, cutting and flicking Glenn Maxwell for three successive boundaries with 13 needed to complete the series sweep.
When Pujara steps down the track to a spinner, there is something anticlimactic in the execution of the shot that follows. You don’t find yourself lifting your head to trace the trajectory of the ball, you’re searching for the line it’s speeding across through the outfield.
Ironically enough, anti-climax was exactly what India needed at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar and Ajinkyar Rahane had fallen to create a mini-wobble, and a clinical, risk-free dispatching of the ball soothed nerves.
It was how Pujara had played through the innings – indeed through the series – and, without appearing to take undue risks, he anchored a potentially tricky fourth-innings chase with 82 not out off just 92 balls. In a match that saw 34 wickets fall and the next highest score was 57, Pujara’s fourth innings knock was as defining as Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling in the third innings.
For a man who is looked at as the most ‘old school’ among the newer generation of Indian batsmen, Pujara’s rate of scoring slipped under the radar during the series. He finished as the second highest run-scorer, M Vijay pipping him by just 11 runs. But if you had to think of the batsman of the series, it had to be Pujara. His runs always came at key moments, he stepped up to open the batting when required and, at the end of the series, the only men who had scored quicker than Pujara for India were MS Dhoni, Ravindra Jadeja and Shikhar Dhawan. Jadeja made less than 100 runs in the series, while Dhawan batted just once – in effect, Pujara was India’s second quickest scorer after Dhoni. Considerably, and unexpectedly, ahead of the likes of Vijay and Kohli.
If you know that Pujara averages 56.98 in domestic one-day matches, his comfort with quick scoring may not come as a surprise, but Pujara’s Test and first-class performances have quite overshadowed those numbers. He made his first-class debut in the 2005-06 season, and many believed that he was ready for the big league a while before he made his Test debut in 2010.
On debut, Pujara seized his chance with a fourth-innings 72 that helped India chase down 207 against Australia. Pujara showed then, that he was ready for Test cricket, and an outing for India in coloured clothing appears long overdue now.
When he was first called up to the One-Day International squad at the beginning of the year for the series against England, Pujara was playing in the Ranji Trophy quarterfinal for Saurashtra against Karnataka. The day after his name was announced in the ODI squad, Pujara was seen practising at the nets before the day’s play. Reverse sweeps, hook shots, paddle sweeps, stepping out and lofting the ball – he brought out the works. And then he went and did that out in the middle too, ending the fourth day on 261 not out off 275 balls, eventually falling on the final day for 352 off 427.
With refreshing candour, Pujara had said then that the Karnataka bowlers weren’t “mature enough” and hadn’t made full use of a pitch that offered turn, and admitted that the ODI call-up was “expected”.
Because of his batting position and his great success in the longer format, Pujara has been compared most often to Rahul Dravid, the man whose spot he has taken at No.3. Dravid himself, when asked recently who reminded him most of himself, took Pujara’s name. However, he was quick to add that Pujara had a lot more shots than he did at the same stage of his career.
In ODIs, Pujara could well be the man to fill a role that Dravid filled too – controlling the middle overs. It’s a role whose scope has expanded and changed after the advent of Twenty20 cricket. The scoring patterns have altered and so have the playing conditions as two new balls are used and power-play overs observed. The deceptively unhurried manner in which he gets his runs is exactly what’s needed from a man who the team can bat around, especially on pitches that offer a bit to the bowlers.
It’s hard to look past Pujara for that role in ODIs. Other than that, though, Pujara’s batting style is visually distinct from Dravid’s. There will always be a few shots that many players might play similarly, but I’d find it hard to imagine Dravid was batting if Pujara’s face was blanked out during an innings.
Pujara is not a Version 2.0 of anyone. If anything, he’s well on his way to becoming a version of the best he can be.