“Love the way Cheteshwar Pujara plays, He plays Test cricket how it should be played,” Former England captain Michael Vaughan was effusive in his praise of India’s No 3 batsman after he scored his first Test hundred on these shores on the second day of the fourth Test at Southhampton.
It was at this venue in June that Pujara first experienced the full wrath of the English conditions. The swinging ball isn’t easy to fend off. When you have a world class bowlers steaming at you from the other end, its an even stiffer task.
As his side - Yorkshire - faced Hampshire, Pujara was handed a rude awakening as South Africa quick Dale Steyn knocked back his stumps with a brute of a delivery. Pujara was late in the shot, failed to pick the swing as the ball swirled into him and burst through his defence.
For a batsman of Pujara’s caliber, getting beaten through the defences is a hard pill to swallow. For like Vaughan said, “Test cricket is meant to be played in a certain way, and Pujara is its ideal brand ambassador.”
And Pujara produced the perfect advertisement for how to play a Test innings. Steyn wasn’t around, but there were James Anderson, Stuart Broad and a sprightly Sam Curran to see off.
Not just the opposition or even the conditions, the right-handed batsman had another hurdle to jump over - his mental block.
Since that unfortunate County game, the 30-year-old’s struggles in England have hardly stalled. Till his half century in the second innings at Trent Bridge, he looked out of sorts. He was even dropped in Birmingham and the decision would have rankled. Confidence would have taken a hit. Faults of other personnel, though, saw him make a return to the XI.
On Friday, he seemed to have bridged the skill deficit and was not only batting with more confidence, he was the dominant force. There was a will to score briskly and effectively. There was intent backed by sound technique.
He started off slow, getting a boundary only after facing 36 deliveries. But, then he was a man transformed. He had seen off the ‘settling down’ period. After that it was a display of bold, courageous batting. There was no hint of a gamble. He was calculative, didn’t shy away from going for the expansive shots — to his credit they hardly ever raised English hopes of a dismissal.
It’s not to say it was all easy going. He was put under considerable strain through many parts of his unbeaten 132-run knock. Coming onto bat at No 3, Pujara carried his bat through staying put at the crease for 355 minutes.
Show of intent
He started off watchfully, skipper Virat Kohli was at the other end. There wasn’t much to worry about in terms of run-rate. Kohli had gotten off the mark with a delightful cover drive. The roles were defined, one thought. Pujara as usual will take the back seat now that Kohli was at the other end. But, this was Pujara, the promised one. He matched Kohli shot for shot. Scoring at the same clip as his partner. Both contributed 46 runs to a 92-run stand in the middle.
He was finally matching Kohli’s intent, a feat he has struggled to achieve consistently thus far. He remained stoic long after Kohli departed. Moeen Ali had triggered a lower-order collapse. Pujara, though, stuck to his guns at the other end. He rallied with the tail, adding 78 runs with Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah for the ninth and tenth wicket.
In fact, it was during this phase that he was at his most aggressive. India scored at a rate well over 3.6 and ended up taking the lead to establish a psychological superiority over their opponents.
It was all Pujara. The Englishmen tried everything. The short deliveries seemed to be their go-to ploy to shake his resolve. He was hit twice on the helmet. After the first hit, the physio had to come on the field to check on Pujara and the helmet needed to be replaced.
It hardly shook him, though, as he soldiered on. The short deliveries hardly stopped, but Pujara was far from intimidated.
“You saw a great mix of caution and aggression in his innings,” batting coach Sanjay Bangar said after the close of play. “Talent can not only be seen in class, but also in bloody-mindedness. He showed mental strength, patience and the concentration today. If you have all those characteristics, then even if you have some limitations in terms of scoring areas or not possessing all the strokes, you can become an effective Test player. That is what he showed,” he added.
It is this right mix that he has struggled to find in recent months. On Friday, the search seemed to have come to its logical end. That it came when India needed it the most only made it sweeter. The battle for consistency still awaits in the coming days but Pujara and India will be happy with the grit and determination with which he went about his knock. As Vaughan says, he played Test cricket like it should be played.