Sunil Gavaskar. Allan Border. Steve Waugh. Rahul Dravid. Sachin Tendulkar. Don Bradman. Len Hutton. Ken Barrington.
Over the years, when other cricketers have been asked who they would want to bat if their lives were on the line, the answers have usually centred around these batsmen.
Among the generation of cricketers who just retired, Dravid chose Tendulkar. Lara went for Dravid. Tendulkar chose Dravid. Steve Waugh made a name as one of the toughest players of all time. When the pressure would get unbearable, these players would shine through.
In the current generation, though, there are few people who seem as much as ease in the middle as Cheteshwar Pujara. When Kohli is there in the middle, he looks like he wants to get the game moving forward. Some others want to play a few shots. But Pujara can just stand there, content to put bat to ball; content to keep it out; content to be there for another ball. He bats time... not the opposition.
The Indian batsman, who has faced more balls than anyone else in Test cricket this year, is now once again starting to scale the heights that everyone expected him to after his superb debut. His 106 off 319 balls at the MCG was the slowest of his 17 Test centuries but it helped India into a position of great strength at close of play on Day 2 of the third Test.
The wicket had not offered much to the bowlers on Day 1 but on Day 2, the variations in bounce added to the difficulty level. The slowness of the pitch had meant that even someone like Virat Kohli (82 off 204 balls) was forced to alter his natural game. Given how the wicket was playing, it seemed like a perfect fit for Pujara’s natural game.
And that forced the Aussies into a corner. They have plans for every Indian batsman. For example, against Kohli they keep bowling wide of the off-stump and then, when that didn’t work, they started bowling bouncers. Against Pujara, though, their best-laid plans have come to naught.
Confident frame of mind
Part of that is down to the confident frame of mind that Pujara finds himself in. The Saurashtra batsman had one overseas hundred In 17 Tests before 2018 but in 10 away Tests this year, he has scored three more. He has found his inner peace in the middle.
He gets hit, he smiles. He defends and then he focuses on the next ball. They sledge him and he steels himself. He just loves to bat and he doesn’t want to get out.
Since January 1, 2017, Pujara has so far faced 4,633 balls in 40 innings, an average of 116 balls per innings. The next best is Kohli with 3,796 balls in 39 innings; an average of 97 balls per innings.
Pujara has understood his game and that is evident in the shots he is playing since the England tour. Before that he was struggling with intent but now he has realised his own value. A look at his scoring chart shows just how controlled his innings was. Because of the slowness of the wicket, he tried to avoid playing any shots square of the wicket. Just 1% of his runs came square on the off-side and just 9% were scored square on the leg-side.
At the close of play, Pujara spoke about just how difficult it was to score on the MCG wicket:
“It is a tough pitch to score runs on. If you look at the first two days, the number of runs scored in very less. In a way, scoring 200 in a day is a tough task. I felt there was a difference I felt while batting in how the wicket was on the first day and today on day 2. So I think we have enough runs on board. You have to bat according to the wicket. On another wicket, I may have scored 140 or 150 after facing so many balls.”
Indeed, Pujara’s innings has played a huge role in pushing Australia into a corner but the match isn’t over yet. If the Australians want to survive, they will all need to find their own inner Pujara as well. India’s innings has showed that it just might be the best and perhaps only way for the hosts to get out of this predicament.