The hype before the Australia series had been all about Virat Kohli, but when the tour ended with India etching their maiden Test series triumph Down Under, the collective gaze of the cricket fraternity was turned onto Cheteshwar Pujara.
It takes a phenomenal effort to overshadow Kohli, and with three defiant hundreds and a tally of 521 runs in four Tests at an average of 74.42, Pujara did exactly that. He was the immovable object that Australia habitually ran into throughout the series. But if one number captured the big picture, it was the number of balls he faced — 1,258.
On Monday, Pujara will be the guest at the Express Adda in Mumbai. The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change.
If doubts lingered over Pujara’s ability to replicate the staggering home success abroad, he erased them with three monumental efforts, which not only cornerstoned India’s series win, but also reinforced the old-world virtues of stodginess and resoluteness.
Each of his knocks, in isolation, was a masterpiece. The 123 in Adelaide came when India were reeling at 86 for five — he hung around, blunted the attack and steered India to 250 on the hottest day in the city in two decades. He returned to score an equally solid 71 in the second innings that, in hindsight, was as precious as his first-innings hundred.
If the Adelaide century was about setting the tone, the Melbourne masterpiece was about bouncing back from the Perth defeat. After the victory, the Australian seamers had their tails up, but like in Adelaide they were ruthlessly blunted and then buried by Pujara, who batted for 481 minutes, faced 319 deliveries and copped several blows en route to his 106.
A few former Australian players critiqued his slow-approach, some even laughed at his name, but with India winning the match with two sessions to spare, the words came back to bite them. In the end, Australian skipper Tim Paine admitted that the difference between the sides was not the pacers, but Pujara.
The icing on the cake was the Sydney 193, his most fluent knock of the series, punctuated by patches wherein he showed he could not only stonewall but also dominate bowlers.
While his discipline against the fast bowlers was exemplary, it was his efficiency in dealing with off-spinner Nathan Lyon that stood out. In both Adelaide and Melbourne, the strips were conducive to spinners, and Lyon, more than any other contemporary spinner, is adept at optimising the conditions. But Pujara disrupted his length by repeatedly stepping out to him or kicking the ball off the rough. By the end of the series, Lyon was a shattered bowler.
For someone with 5,000 Test runs to his name, it’s unfair to call this series a career-defining one for Pujara. But it’s the series that would define him.
At the Express Adda, Pujara will be in conversation with The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti and National Sports Editor Sandeep Dwivedi.
Past guests at the event include the Dalai Lama, economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, filmmaker Karan Johar, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, writer Amitav Ghosh, and oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee.