Instead of utilising the regular nets arena,one embedded with eight wicket beds,the Royal Challengers Bangalore ushered in their pre-match session at the main Ferozeshah Kotla wicket square. Two temporary rexine structures glistened under the awakening lights.
Below one,Virat Kohli velcroed on his thigh-pads; Around the other,a few opening rejects in Mayank Agarwal,Lokesh Rahul,Abhinav Mukund and Saruabh Tiwary cast their glances at the vacant net. At precisely this point,Cheteshwar Pujara,the occupant,strutted out of the dressing room in full armour. And right off the bat (literally) a few thumping hits had the bystanders clearing the vicinity.
In more ways than one,this was a symbolic moment.
For far too long in the shorter formats of the game (both fifty and twenty over cricket),Pujara has been an onlooker himself. And for far longer,his reputation of being a grit-and-scratch batsman (a false one of course) has come in his way from collecting the free runs on offer in the Indian Premier League. Consider this.
In List A cricket,the Saurashtra boy averages 56.97 in 61 matches,with a hundred roughly punctuating every 7.5 innings. Despite this,he is yet to make his one-day international debut for the country.
Stuck with that image of a nurdler,for the first 17 matches of his short IPL career Pujara was tried in every position from numbers three to eight. And it was only last season that he walked out to face the first over of the game a space reserved for the big run-getters. He scored 11 and 6 in the two opportunities he got,only to be demoted down the order for the next game and slip right out of the bottom henceforth.
Back then,though,few apart from the Ranji faithful had got a close look at him,least of all in the rushed frenzy that is the IPL. Then,late last summer,he became India’s permanent number three in Test cricket. And that closer look was finally available for the entirety of the 10 back-to-back Tests that panned out at home last year.
Insofar,it is now widely considered that no other in India’s top-six plays a more attacking brand of cricket. Unlike say a Murali Vijay,who is conventionally considered a ‘stroke-maker’,Pujara pulls and hooks freely off his backfoot. And unlike a Kohli,he finds plenty of room on his committed frontfoot to cut and drive through the square on the off side. Also,unlike most unidimensional six-finders,Pujara doesn’t slog to locate the ropes. And he sure did pierce them a few times in his comeback IPL match against the Kings XI Punjab,earlier this week.
It must have been rather reassuring for the Bangalore think-tank when Pujara made his first innings of this season count with a stroke-filled 51 what after Tillakaratne Dilshan,Agarwal,Mukund and Lokesh Rahul struggling to put bat on ball,let alone matching up to the man at the other end Chris Gayle. The Punjab game was also the first time in IPL VI that both Bangalore openers stepped it up on the same day. Pujara played all his strokes,but his carpet cutters worked as the perfect foil to Gayle’s sixes.