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Saturday, July 21, 2018

In his 50th Test, Cheteshwar Pujara knocks on the door of the pantheon

Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane scored centuries and shared an unbroken 211-run partnership as a dominant India ended the first day on 344/3. He became the second visiting batsman after Sachin Tendulkar to record three hundred in successive Tests in Sri Lanka.

Written by Sandip G | Colombo | Updated: August 4, 2017 9:49:29 am
Cheteshwar Pujara, Pujara, India vs Sri Lanka, Ind vs SL, India tour of Sri Lanka 2017, Cricket news, Indian Express Cheteshwar Pujara became only the sixth Indian to celebrate his 50th Test with a hundred. (Source: Reuters)

Sometime during the Australia series this year, in the course of which Cheteshwar Pujara scored the most first-class runs in a season by an Indian, he was asked whether he was aware of the statistical embellishment. With a gentle smile playing on his lips, he replied in the affirmative.

It was unusual, as players dutifully feign ignorance of numerical milestones. Pujara, though, insisted it wasn’t an obsession. It’s not as if he wakes up and begins number-crunching straightaway, or heads into the match thinking what record he can break. It’s one of the means he measures his progress, to view his achievements through the prism of numbers, for numbers cold as they might be, are revelatory too.

While enjoying a quite evening at the team hotel after yet another high-quality hundred, he must have been enlightened about the records he surpassed or equaled during the innings (it will be wise if somebody in the support staff kept a stat-ready notebook). He became only the sixth Indian to celebrate his 50th Test with a hundred, the third (joint) fastest Indian to 4,000 runs, just behind Virender Sehwag and Sunil Gavaskar, and became the leading run-getter in Tests this year (838 runs from seven matches), eclipsing South African opener Dean Elgar. Even if you stretch the time frame to the August of 2016, no one has scored as many runs (1612 runs at 70.88) or faced as many deliveries as him (3309).

It could turn out to be that kind of a prolific season as Ricky Ponting enjoyed in 2003 or his successor Michael Clarke in 2012, wherein both aggregated 100-plus.

To nit-pick that this massive mountain of runs were piled at home or home-like conditions seems utterly churlish. For irrespective of the conditions or circumstances, it reveals a staggering consistency not even Virat Kohli could hit. Or even the other batting triumvirate of this era—Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith.

Equally pertinent is to assess the diverse circumstances — the situations that demanded different responses, conditions that warranted different methods — he had to endure this season. In Bangalore, he had to be, even by his standards, extremely focused. The reflexes and judgement needed to be razor-sharp, each stroke, defensive or otherwise, needed to be precise. It was such a vituperative pitch that where one lapse (sometimes no lapse at all) or imprudence could cost him. He played almost everything on the front-foot, often shimmying down to the pitch of the ball and and not allowing to ball to explode off the craters .

In Ranchi, through the epic double hundred, he shelved the drives, as the surface was getting increasingly difficult and playing through line wasn’t prudent. In Indore, against New Zealand, he had to accelerate because it was the third innings and India were setting a target. In Galle, it was about strike-rotation, as Shikhar Dhawan was blazing at the other end. In SSC, it was about stability. His wicket could have opened the floodgates, as there was some bite on the surface for the spinners. He had to preserve the wicket as well as tick the scoreboard along.

His methods too were different. In Galle, he’d habitually shimmy down the track for almost every other ball.

Here, the frequency was less and he was content turning the spinners round the corner from the back foot.

Such a batsman is a bowler’s nightmare, for they are uncertain how they can line them up. They can’t keep on flighting the ball hoping he would misjudge it. They can’t peg them on the back foot with sliders and flippers. They can’t wear him down with dot balls or seduce them into a trap.

Often, it’s taken for granted that Indian batsmen are well-versed in neutralising spin. But it hasn’t always been the case. For example, Kohli has contrived to get out four times in 10 innings against left-arm spinners this year alone.

Though in a different context, Sri Lanka coach’s chess analogy is so apt about Pujara as well. He said: “It’s like a game of chess. They make a move and then we make a move. The difference is that you don’t get much time to make that move.”

Rather, Pujara didn’t give them the time to make that move. The dextrous wrists, the nimble feet, the ticking brain and hawkish eyes tied them up in knots.

To think that his spot was impermanent and that he doesn’t squeeze into Kohli template of aggression around the same time last year seems blasphemous in hindsight. It’s also an insight into his inner steel belied in that he remained unflustered by such talks and demonstrated his immeasurable value.

His embodies Victorian values of patience and modesty.

But he is not a chip off the old block. He’s not like the 60s men who’d grind you to boredom and sleep. Neither is he is modern-day buccaneer, who’ll pound you to gasp. He is the perfect amalgam of the old and new, blending the virtues of both worlds. He’s essentially a 90s cricketer practising a craft that’s still relevant and will be relevant for as long as Test cricket exists. Dare we say, like Rahul Dravid?

The Dravid allusion arrived prematurely in his career. Even before the latter retired, Pujara was labelled as Dravid’s heir apparent. It had sometimes been a baggage for young Pujara, but now that he has stacked a heap of stats and achieved his 4,000th Test run in equal number of innings as his prototype, the comparisons and parallels can now begin in earnest. While numbers don’t reveal the whole picture, they do speak the truth.

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