It was all Virat Kohli when the series began; Kohli smiling from the covers of magazines and newspapers, Kohli sparkling in the back of bright blue jerseys, Kohli riding the crest of Mexican waves, Kohli screaming from banners and billboards. Such is the Indian skipper’s aura that the frenzy is understandable, in whichever neck of the cricketing woods he stamps his footprint.
A month into the series, Kohli’s halo is undimmed, only that Cheteshwar Pujara has acquired one of his own, which has shone brighter than Kohli’s. So much so that it’s fair to say that Pujara has emerged from Kohli’s shadow this series. It’s not as simple as that, for grafters seem to perennially plough under the shadow of gilded geniuses. To beat Kohli, Pujara needed to outscore him, rather than out-stroke him, which Pujara has, by more than a century of runs.
As India moved ever closer to a first ever series win Down Under on Thursday, they again had Pujara to thank, as his unbeaten 130, his third century of the four-Test rubber, took India to a comfortable 303/4 at stumps on Day One at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
The likes of Pujara are the unfashionable second fiddles — few notice their diligence and exhaustive attention to practice. Like Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who could never match the implacable genius of Brian Lara. Alastair Cook, for the knighthood and all, never radiated the halo of Kevin Pietersen. Yet, there were countless series, wherein the edifice wad laid out by the nondescript unfashionable grinder of attacks. Like England’s 2012 series triumph in India, which is widely attributed to the magic wand of Pietersen than the labour of Cook.
Pujara is the flag-bearer of that tribe, now that Cook has retired. Like them, he doesn’t intimidate bowlers, but irritates them. He waits for the last moment to determine the appropriate shot to play, usually a careful push or stout defence, just occasionally something more extravagant, but always with security uppermost in his mind. He uses hands as opposed to forearms, a mere cricket bat as opposed to a tree trunk, persuasion and perseverance as opposed to power, providing a notable counterpoint to the contemporary game. In fact, he’s an anachronism — a long-term specialist, not the sharpest of throwers or the quickest fielder. Old-fashioned yet not outdated, a reminder that cricket has many faces and talent takes many forms.
To men of such indubitable ethos, cricket owes. A team cannot just have Kohli or KP clones. It becomes boring. They need men like Pujara to counterbalance, the alter-ego, and in some instances a mirror. There hasn’t been a more instructive proof of these values than this series, beyond doubt Pujara’s defining series. Exceptional players like Kohli or Sachin Tendulkar define each series they play. But it’s less frequent for someone like Pujara. This could be his defining series, if it already isn’t. Three hundreds, two of them match-winning, the third brimming with potential, 400-plus runs and counting.
Each of his hundreds had a definitive, standalone virtue. The first put India in the ascendancy in the series, often it has been India’s plight to play catch-up overseas. The second, the most laborious of them, reclaimed India the lead, which again is unusual. The third, his most fluent of the three, put India on the pedestal of their first overseas win (in SENA countries – South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) under Kohli.
Monumental as his efforts have been, the true value would only magnify in time. Here, his career trajectory merges with Rahul Dravid’s, though Dravid was fundamentally an artful technician than a grisly gatherer. But it’s the career pattern that’s worth elaborating. On his first Australia tour, Dravid, like Pujara, struggled to kick on from his starts. But on his second visit, he amassed 619 runs at 123.80. Dravid later explained that it was down to his technique-fixation. Pujara exudes the same impression when he bats these days, relaxed and nonplussed.
The Sydney hundred was perhaps the smoothest Pujara has looked abroad since the Johannesburg one in 2013. His control percentage, for someone who has faced 250 deliveries, was a staggering 90. He was brutal with flicks, authoritative with cover drives, and audacious with cut shots to pacers. He weathered a short-ball storm, yet again outwitted Nathan Lyon and consigned the bowlers to the damningly familiar sight of his unflappable willow, tattooed with red leather marks.
On a bigger note, this series should put to rest doubts over his overseas credentials. A mere number-guzzler would wonder about the scrutiny over him. A cursory glance at his overseas numbers would tell why. Before this series, in SENA countries, he averaged 29 in 25 matches with only two hundreds. He averaged just 33 in Australia before this series, and but for his Southampton hundred, his place would have been under further scrutiny. Such arguments shall cease- he has hundreds in three of those countries. Three alone in Australia. Only Kohli has more in a series in Australia.
It would also have exorcised the pangs of Sydney. The last time he came to Sydney, Pujara was doubt-ridden. For the first time since he’d cemented his place in the side, he was dropped. More than that, he was treading an unusual phase of his career, getting starts but unable to kick on. It was unusual because it’s the way he had constructed his career, on the edifice of monstrous hundreds, doubles and triples. For him to stumble in the 20s and 40s was a crushing feeling.
Men of lesser resolve would have quit; but not Pujara. He chose the steeper route, straight upon landing in India, he began playing Ranji Trophy, then in the IPL break inked an agreement with Yorkshire, a tenure he not only enjoyed but which gave him a larger perspective of the world and the game. Soon after his return, he went through the India A grind, spent time with Dravid, realigned his stance, tightened his defensive technique and on his chance break at the SSC in Colombo, struck a hundred and carried his bat through the innings on a green-top. Sydney now would look sunnier to Pujara. In the end, what was meant to be an extension of Kohli’s golden summer has turned out to be Pujara’s.
Man who bats time
- Cheteshwar Pujara has faced 1,135 balls in the series till stumps on Day 1 of the Sydney Test. The next highest is Virat Kohli at 684. Among the Aussies, Khawaja tops the list with 509 balls.
- Pujara has become just the third Indian batsman — after Sunil Gavaskar and Kohli — to score three or more ton in a series in Australia. So far, he has batted a shade under 30 hrs in the series.
- Pujara is the first batsman since England’s Geoffrey Boycott in 1970-71 to face more than 200 balls in an innings on four occasions in Australia. Boycott did that in a six-Test series.
- If Pujara faces another 103 balls in this Test, he will own the record of the most deliveries faced by a visiting batsman in a series of four or fewer Tests in Australia.