At about 2.15 pm, in a modest two-bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Siliguri, an ecstatic Prashantha Saha might have jumped off the couch. Nearly 10 minutes later, 3000-odd kilometres away in Rajkot, a joyous Arvind Pujara’s clatter of hands must have echoed in a spartan bungalow off the Rajkot-Jamnagar highway. On Sunday, when Cheteshwar Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha racked up milestones and stitched a series-defining partnership, two unlikely towns forged an invisible bond.
For the tale of Saha and Pujara is also the story of their cities, and their fathers. Arvind was a moderately-talented first-class cricketer, a humble Western Railways clerk who channelised all his energies into realising his dream of playing for India through his son. Prashantha was a failed footballer-cum-cricketer plying in the Siliguri leagues, supporting the family with the meagre income from the Bengal State Electricity Board, but always ensuring that he didn’t stand in the way of his son and his ambitions.
The virtues the pair demonstrated on the field during their massive stand of 199 was a reflection of the values their respective fathers had drilled into them. Pujara personified temperance and discipline, drummed into him by his disciplinarian father from childhood. Saha embodied fight and fervour, which he imbibed by seeing his father struggle to make ends meet. The cities they grew in were nondescript, just tiny specks on the map. Rajkot, a city still romancing its princely past, and Siliguri blending into it a cross-border multiculturalism. From perspectives to practices and culture to climate, everything is a contrast.
Just as contrasting as the way Saha and Pujara bat. The latter’s is a more textbookish, standard technique, chiselled out under his father’s gaze. Saha’s is a more home-spun, practical technique, not entirely unorthodox but still with a difference about it. Pujara stands still at the crease, his movements precise and economic. Saha twitches in his crease, his face seemingly tense and feet a little wobbly. Before he beds in, he concedes an impression of messy footwork, which goes all over the place.
Pujara’s back-foot defence conforms to the tenets of the coaching manual. Saha’s is from the songbook of defiance. When Pujara steps down to the spinners, he does so with a smooth transfer of weight to the front foot, without any apparent jerks or doubts. He just times the ball. When Saha steps down, it’s inevitably to hit. He puts his whole body behind his shot, which seems to bring out more energy than it seems to possess. When Pujara drives, you cannot miss the bottom-hand whirl, which he takes off when he defends. When Saha drives, you can’t miss the crunchiness of the shot.
You’d expect Pujara, with his height, to lean onto the drives. But it’s Saha, half a foot shorter than him, who instinctively does so. Pujara’s are safety-first methods. Saha’s survival-first. Pujara is meticulous; Saha pugnacious.
A fair distance from safety
The contrasting modes and methods, perspectives and patterns, juxtaposed to produce one of the most significant partnerships in the Virat Kohli era. When Saha walked in, India were a fair distance away from safety, or victory. They trailed by 123 runs. Pat Cummins was bowling with vim and venom. The ball was reversing a bit. The surface threw signs of misbehaving. If Cummins had his way, India would have been bowling before the sun faded out on Saturday.
But Pujara didn’t budge, Saha didn’t flinch. In their unique and contrasting ways, bind by the team’s need to bat as long as they could, they dimmed the prospects of an Australian victory. They were like two soldiers drawn from different battalions tagged along to pull off a coup.
Through thick and thin they were together. They saw through teasing lines from Josh Hazlewood, vicious pace from Cummins, tempting lines from Nathan Lyon and Steve O’Keefe. They enjoyed luck, like Matthew Wade dropping Saha soon after his half century. Cummins hit him on the chest, Hazlewood peppered Pujara with short balls, the onside trap well-laid out, and Cummins hurried him a few other times. They tried verbal tricks too. But they fed off each other’s assurance and the bigger motivation to dig their team out of trouble.
Even the usually restrained Pujara didn’t mind a few timely repartees. As when Hazlewood needled him, All Pujara told him was “Look at the scoreboard”. If Hazlewood had indeed looked, he would have got the message. Pujara was on 180-plus and India’s lead more than 50.
“He’s always patient and you get the assurance that a wicket won’t fall at the other end. He backed me and encouraged me to play my shots and be positive.” said Saha.
Both of them drew from their experience of batting together recently in the Irani Trophy in January where they had put on an undefeated 316 runs off only 473 in orchestrating an epic chase. Then, Pujara’s contribution was 116, Saha’s 203. Their individuals scores here were almost identical — Pujara 202 and Saha 117.
Here, their 199 came off 466 balls. It didn’t always make for a pulsating or a beautiful watch. But it was by no means a drag, and by the time it ended, they had not only helped India efface the lead but also snuffed out Australia’s victory hopes. And two proud fathers in diametrically opposite parts of the country will be celebrating. And an invisible bond of affection would have been forged between Siliguri and Rajkot.