January 3, 2015. Sydney Cricket Ground. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy was lost. MS Dhoni decided to retire from Test cricket in the middle of a tour. The Test captaincy made its way, officially, to Virat Kohli. It was the dawn of a new era in Indian cricket and Cheteshwar Pujara wasn’t there to see it. He had been dropped.

The right-hander wasn’t exactly striking it very well in that tour. He had made 201 run in 6 innings at an average of 33.50 and Kohli decided he wanted to shake things up a little. Rohit Sharma batted at No 3 in that match and scored 53 off 133 balls at a Pujara-esque strike-rate of 39.84 in the first innings and followed it up with 39 in the second.

It was at that point that one wondered whether the old school of batsmanship — one which placed more value on a dead bat than a streaky shot — would survive in India. Pujara had been part of a dying breed of batsmen whose technique had somehow resisted the onslaught of T20 and ODI techniques and with him potentially not around, who would younger kids look and learn from?

Full circle

Still, here we are, exactly four years later and all we can talk about is Pujara’s batting. To put it more precisely, his old-school batting. In a sense, it is now so different to what most current batsmen do, that the Aussies simply have no clue of how to bowl to a batsman who has infinite patience. And perhaps it is fitting that we could once again witness his genius at Sydney.

His unbeaten 130 (off only 250 balls) at close of day one in Sydney put him in some very elite company. It was his third century in the series on an away tour and only four Indians had achieved the feat before. Sunil Gavaskar (4 centuries) and Dilip Sardesai (3) during the 1970-71 tour of West Indies, Gavaskar (3) again during the 1977-78 tour of Australia, Dravid (3) did it twice in England in 2003 and again in 2011 and finally, Kohli during India’s last tour of Australia in 2014-15.

It almost feels like life has come a full circle in more ways than one. In a sense, Pujara just had to wait for the world to realise his true value.

Most Test centuries by an Indian in Australia

Player Matches (Innings) Centuries (50s) Runs
Virat Kohli 12 (23) 6 (3) 1274
Sachin Tendulkar 20 (38) 6 (7) 1809
Sunil Gavaskar 11 (19) 5 (1) 920
VVS Laxman 15 (29) 4 (4) 1236
Cheteshwar Pujara 7 (13*) 3 (2) 659*

Back then, in a world of pitches that were tailor-made for batting, there seemed to be little reason to look for a single when a four was on offer. It made sense. Perfectly logical sense. If a batsman could trust the bounce and the pace, stroke-play was that a much easier. And the easier the pitch, the lesser the value of Pujara.

So the batsman from Saurashtra had to wait. He had to bat time — only not always on the field. Sometimes in his mind too. He had to wait for the tide to turn; he had to wait for more lively pitches to come along and then he had to grind.

Let’s make no mistake. Pujara has had to work very hard to earn his place back in the Indian team. There was a time when he suddenly found new ways to get bowled. He would be batting well and then, without warning, a ball would get past his defence and disturb the timber. There was a time when he wanted to bat with more ‘intent’. But he figured things by working hard in the nets with his dad and by playing a lot of county cricket.

In a sense, Pujara’s batting now shows the power of self-realisation. He now accepts his game as it is. He doesn’t try to change it because he knows this is what works for him.

On day one of this Test in Sydney, his batting didn’t just have the old arresting charm that would please the cricket tragics. Today, he backed it up with a wonderful flourish that would have appealed to the IPL generation as well. But he started off as he always does. Watchful as ever, utterly unrelenting and offering the deadest of bats in defence.

There was talk about the Australian bowlers looking fatigued. But the tiredness they experience from seeing Pujara at the batting crease is probably the worst of it all. He has spent more than 27 hours at the crease in this series alone. He may not have the athleticism that Kohli perhaps seeks from others but his stoic mentality seems to be perfect fit for tough wickets and unfriendly attacks.

Against the fast bowlers, Pujara has been waiting for the bad deliveries but against Lyon, he has been more than happy to use his feet. Having the right-hander in the middle means that Lyon never quite settles into a rhythm and that seems to disturb the balance of the attack.

Since being dropped for the first Test against England in Edgbaston last year, Pujara has faced over 2000 deliveries and perhaps all this time spent in the middle has helped him find the answers to all the questions that have haunted him in the past. And in doing so, he may have answered all the questions that skipper Kohli might have had about his batting as well.

Still, as the match will go into day two, Pujara will know his job is not done. Like all those who have been brought up on stories of Test cricket, he will take fresh guard and start again.

Sydney missed out on seeing him bat four years ago but now they get to see him at his best.