On a balmy December evening in 2005, Cheteshwar Pujara scored his maiden first-class hundred in the old Madhavrao Scindia Stadium in Rajkot. Unbeaten on 111 overnight, he was dismissed for 145 an hour into the first session of the second day. For someone playing just his second Ranji match, this was an ample reason to lounge in the dressing room for the rest of the day. But at the lunch break, to then coach Debu Mitra’s utter surprise, Pujara was missing. He called out his name, but there was no response. He wandered his eyes onto the ground to check whether he was there, but couldn’t spot. Finally, he found Pujara batting on a practice wicket outside the ground.
Stupefied, he asked whether he was not tired after batting for nearly a day and half. Pujara returned a blank stare and in a depressed tone told him, “Sir I missed a great opportunity to score a double hundred.” Mitra was speechless, and let him practice as long he wanted, but walked away with the conviction that the young boy will scale great heights. “I had seen him bat and interacted with him, but this was when I realised that he was ambitious,” he later said.
Those Victorian virtues of hard work and commitment only burgeoned as his career fledged and blossomed, and as he began getting big hundreds with a staggering consistency that matched the greats of the game. It was a habit, he seamlessly reprised at the international level, too. In his first 15 Tests, in 26 innings, he stacked up a brace of double hundreds and as many scores in the 150s, to go with two others hundreds.
“I feel disappointed every time I fail to convert a hundred into a double or a big one,” he had said scored the last of his double hundreds, en route to which he became also the second fast Indian, after Vinod Kambli, to 1,000 Test runs. Those were the best of times, but the worst of times were lurking behind him. In the next three years, he went through the inevitable emotional journey all sportsmen pass through, that of rediscovering himself, that of losing his spot in the playing eleven in Australia, then coming back with a fine hundred on a whimsy SSC track, then forced to bench-warm for a lack of “intent” in the Caribbean and then re-establishing himself as India’s Mr Dependable in the lengthy home season.
A double hundred in Tests, though, has been elusive. In a season, he has a composed four fine hundreds and aggregated in the mid-60s, a double hundred, the magic number that sates him, has been hard to coerce. Every time he had crossed a hundred, he looked to kick along and etch a bigger one, but somehow, through a combination of good balls and uncharacteristic shot selection, he was left to repent.
Of course, he has long banished the double-hundred fixation, which he admitted in an interview was weighing him down until last year. “The thought in my mind was that ‘I need to score big’. So rather than focusing on the process, I was thinking about the result.” The retooled Pujara’s philosophy is “to bat positively and make important runs for the team.”
But Sunday presents him a perfect opportunity to dust up his old double-century hitting ways. Unbeaten on 130, and India still adrift of Australia by 91 runs, a double-hundred or anything bigger would be of immense circumstantial value . Given the assured manner in which he has batted thus far in the match, he looked poised.
Saturday’s effort was a throwback to his earlier big-hundred hitting days. He began measuredly, then asserted himself, and then again wove a shell of measuredness around him. It was like driving from a congested metropolis to a four-lane highway—you wade through the traffic and the glide through the highway, and then back again. In his first 92 balls, he gritted out just 21 runs. In his next 124 balls, he hoarded 79 runs; the travel from 48 to 100 cost him just 60 deliveries. Then the last 30 runs soaked in 114 deliveries.
The knock was replete with all the shots you associate with him—the bottom-hand accentuated drives, the thrustful flicks and the scything back cuts, the latter in the old-fashioned way of feet lifted off the grounds. Then, just to remind the text-bookishness of him, he sealed his hundred with a crunchy drive off Pat Cummins through cover, the front elbow proudly winking at the sun. Besides a close lbw shout he sustained—and which the Australians reviewed—he was batting with the assurance of someone who has accumulated fistful of hundreds.
Batting with the tail
The fourth-day presents him with an unfamiliar challenge, something his permanency at the top hasn’t always afforded him with, a positional strait-jacketing. That is his ability to shepherd the lower-order batsmen, which his position at No. 3 doesn’t always allow. And unlike against New Zealand and England, India’s lower-order hasn’t made any substantial contributions. Saha has scored just 26 runs in this series, Ravindra Jadeja is unpredictable, and Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav don’t offer much promise.
The only time in memory he has architected a lower-order resistance, was when he carried his bat through the innings.
That was during his unbeaten 145 at SSC, when he strung 132 runs with the last three. In he can replicate a similar effort, India can surpass Australia’s 451 and Pujara can reacquaint with that magical, elusive milestone of his.