Cheteshwar Pujara’s lone stroke of indiscretion arrived at most unexpected moment. Just when he was approaching his hundred and the New Zealand XI bowlers were tiring, Pujara played an uncharacteristic pull off a delivery that seemed to pause on him. For a batsman who was remarkable in meeting the ball at the most precise time throughout his innings, he was a fraction early into the shot.
When he got out, Pujara was on 93. While negotiating the tough conditions and watching the steady fall of wickets from the non-striker’s end, the India No.3 mentored his fellow Test-specialist Hanuma Vihari.
Later in the day, Vihari spoke how Pujara’s advise to leave more ball than play helped him a lot. He went on to score an unbeaten 101 and retired to the dressing room to give other batsmen a hit. However, with most batsmen failing to adjust to the bounce and swing, India finished the first innings at 263. It was a day when four Indian batsmen — Prithvi Shaw, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravichandran Ashwin — were dismissed for ducks.
Back to Pujara, who a model of discretion. He was fully aware of the nature of the wickedly green pitch, the bowling plans, his own stroke selection and the areas of the ground that would get him runs. He even kept changing his tactics as the nature of the surface and the identity of the bowlers changed.
India all out for 263 in the practice game against New Zealand XI.
Vihari 101 retd, Pujara 93 pic.twitter.com/8h0uONqFpx
— BCCI (@BCCI) February 14, 2020
Like for example, for much of the first session, he was resolved to leave the balls that evaded the stumps. Having seen the extra bounce that devoured Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill, he knew he could leave anything pitched back-of-length even if they were directed into him. He seems to know that even if he was struck on the pads, the umpires would be hesitant to give lbws, given the bounce.
Considering the away swing, he cut out the drives. He wouldn’t even look to defend the balls that he knew wouldn’t harm his stumps. And when forced to defend on the front-foot, he made a conscious effort to not reach for it or push at it, like Ajinkya Rahane did and paid the price.
Only when the bowlers strayed on the leg-side that the scope of run-making passed through his mind. He would nudge, nurdle, deflect or bunt the ball through the largely vacant vistas on the leg-side. Even then, he didn’t venture for the full-bloodied strokes, but rather place it. Boundaries were few, he just had one in the first 81 balls he faced.
He reinforced the fact that there are a few contemporaries who play the patience game as effectively as him. Again, this is characteristic Pujara-starts the marathon sedately, before gradually accelerating towards the middle stretch and then decelerating. Like he did when New Zealand introduced Ish Sodhi, who he latched onto with relish. It’s the age-old blueprint of Pujara’s great knocks.
Like a studious understudy, Vihari grasped all those virtues. In technique and approach, they are different. He’s a compulsive puncher of the ball, especially on the back-foot, but he is not much of a cutter like Pujara is. The fondness for punching on the rise could be self-destructive when the ball is hemming around. He curbed his instincts and played the back-foot punches only when he had the time to get on top of the bounce. Like Pujara, he was restrained outside the off-stump, though he wasn’t merciful enough to not let anything loose go unpunished.
But the basics tenets were modelled on Pujara’s batting, like leaving anything that was not threatening the stumps, not pushing at the ball with hard hands or playing away from the body, or swiping across the line and not playing horizontal shots, and latching onto anything that was in his range. “You have to understand what shots to avoid on these pitches. Initially at least. Then if you can control it in your mind then I feel it’s not so difficult to adjust. But once you have a certain game-plan and if you can stick to it, then I feel it’s easy enough to adjust.”
A busy end to the day in Hamilton! A flurry of wickets has India 263/9 to close the day. Vihari leading the way with 101 retired. Scorecard | https://t.co/DlM94EI8Sn #NZXIvIND pic.twitter.com/GRfZhdQAu6
— BLACKCAPS (@BLACKCAPS) February 14, 2020
Though he had scored a hundred in the India A game in Lincoln, the conditions here offered a different challenge, summoning an entirely different set of skills. He agrees: “The wicket in Lincoln was different from what we had here. It had pace and bounce early on and with the new-ball it was a challenge, and we lost a few early wickets. Obviously they were bowling in great areas and the wicket had good bounce, extra bounce, more than what I’ve experienced in New Zealand before. So I took some time to adjust and once I knew what shots I had to avoid early on this wicket, maybe horizontal shots, I tried to avoid that,” he says.
Pujara’s advice too benefitted him. “He told me what I could do, to leave more balls on this wicket, get your eye in and it will make my job easier. I listened to him and it paid off,” he reveals.
After Lunch, Saini and Bumrah have picked up a wicket each.
New Zealand XI 133/5 pic.twitter.com/IrpFyCYrmx
— BCCI (@BCCI) February 15, 2020
If his adaptability shone brightly through his knock, lucidity shone brighter. Everything about him is simple and measured. He is still and serene with hardly any the pre-delivery movement or a shuffle. His bat-swing is neat and the follow-through fluid. There is something charmingly old school about his strokes, in the nimbleness of his feet and the straightness of his bat-swing. But different as he might be to Pujara, there are shards of similarities like their self-effacing demeanour, discipline and self-awareness.
Thus either side of two abysmal batting collapse, a pair of batsmen with different styles and technique but with common virtues and principles resurrected India. They also penned a preface to batting on the type of pitches the India might encounter in the coming weeks against a far more menacing attack.
Brief Scores: India 263 in 78.5 (Cheteshwar Pujara 93; Hanuma Vihari 101 retired out; Scott Kuggelijn 3/40; Ish Sodhi 3/72).
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