His appearance doesn't portray the picture of a natural athlete, his agility in the field is not his trademark, the technique and temperament resemble cricketers from the 70s and 80s. His character is that of a calm and composed man, stance represents positiveness of mind, the grip of the bat determines the firmness in his attitude and the mind – full of patience and ambitious to score runs. Son of a former Ranji player, Cheteshwar Pujara does justice to every attribute he possesses.
In the age of flamboyancy, where every player is getting the spotlight and admiration, he is a lone wolf in the background. Despite his consistent performances, his position remained under threat due to surprising reasons. Since 2015, Pujara’s journey to the international side has never been a bed of roses.
He was dropped in the first two Test matches against Sri-Lanka in 2015 and later asked to open in absence of the regular opener in the final one, where he carried his bat through the innings and bagged the Man of the Match award for his defiant century (145).
He again got axed in the 3rd Test against West Indies in 2016 due to allegations of scoring at a slow rate, which is quite unusual for Test cricket. But his religious hard work and noble ethics brought him back to where he belongs and where he loves to play.
Let's go back a little!
Pujara struggled to make it to the international side even after an impressive five years of first-class cricket where he averaged over 50. His dream eventually came true when he was chosen over Yuvraj Singh as a middle order specialist against the mighty Aussies in the 2010 Test series. He appeared in the Bengaluru Test where he barely scored any runs in the first innings. However, in the second, he was promoted ahead of Rahul Dravid and scored a crucial 72 off 89 balls which was instrumental in India's win.
He stayed out of the Indian side for two years before Dravid and Laxman announced their retirement after the 2012 away Test series Down Under. He then went on to score a plethora of runs between 2012 and 2015 against the top Test playing nations on their own backyard.
Pujara did struggle a bit with his form in England so he signed up with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club to get acclimatized to the conditions. He excelled in his maiden county season with a flurry of half-centuries and centuries giving every reason to his fans to stand up and say, "this is my man and he is the best in business."
Pujara's moment in the sun
A clear sky and the scorching heat in Ranchi coupled with 18,000 super-excited yet anxious spectators welcomed the Indian mainstay Cheteswar Pujara to the crease. Opener KL Rahul had earlier fallen to an exceptional Pat Cummins delivery, edging to the wicketkeeper.
Pujara realised that Pat Cummins was high on momentum even on a flat deck. The pace took a deep breath and steamed in again to challenge Pujara with another pacy full-length delivery on middle and leg. Pujara was equal to the challenge and tucked it away confidently to short mid-wicket!
He has been India's consistent performer this grand home season. He has scored in excess of 2000 runs and was instrumental in continuing India's dream run as world-beaters! The team needed him to carry on his good form when the chances of losing the series loomed large.
"If you have good or bad technique, it doesn't matter. You will survive if you can adjust your game," – Virender Sehwag
Pujara's wide stance earlier had given way to a closed one showing his intent to not get squared up. A narrow stance gives him the leeway to innovate in tight situations.
He could play the short stuff easily with this change and could also negotiate the away-going deliveries. He stays low and drives beautifully on both sides of the wicket. He has a great sense of timing which allows him to play beautiful on-drives against both pace and spin. His bottom-handed grip allows him to manoeuvre his strokes at the very last minute without compromising on timing.
A steady head means he is always in a great position to play the horizontal bat strokes. These are qualities of a great number three batsman.
His plan against the Aussie spinners worked wonders. His bottom handed grip ensured he generated tremendous power in his strokes. Playing right under the eyes and the ability to get to the pitch of the balls with swift footwork ensured he was always in control. Adept at the drive, strong with the cut and emphatic with the pull, Pujara made the bowlers operate into his strong areas/zones. Again, the hallmark of a fantastic batsman!
He hung back in the crease to play the ball at the very last moment. There was uneven bounce, unsettling spin and extraordinary lateral movement; none of which moved Pujara. He continued, relentless, ball-after-ball, over-after-over, session-after-session and batted India back into the contest. He just wouldn't flinch and ground the Aussies into submission!
Lisa Sthalekar Indian-born former Australian women cricket captain applauded Pujara on his marvellous innings against Australia in the 3rd Test.
Match point (Ind vs Aus 3rd test at Ranchi, 202 off 525 balls)
“Not only does test cricket test your skills, it tests your character as well” – Anil Kumble
Possibilities were endless when the Indian scoreboard read 328/6. The threat of being bowled out with a deficit was clear and present; there was also a need to up the ante and the task of not losing wickets was paramount. A 102 run partnership between Murali Vijay and Pujara was the sole silver lining for India hitherto.
He defied all odds and struck a resilient hundred; reaching triple figures with a deft cover drive to the fence. The job wasn't done yet; India was still well over 100 runs adrift of the Aussie total. It was imperative to drive home the advantage gained.
The batsmanship on view was of the highest order. Pujara was exemplary in both offence and defence. Importantly, he knew when to hold back and when to strike. The Australian attack posed some telling questions; Pujara battled hard. The odd edge or the occasional burst of chin music didn't ruffle him. When he was done, the statistics he left behind were tremendous. 525 balls; 668 minutes and 202 laborious runs.
He had batted the most number of balls ever by anyone in Indian colours. A quote that summed it up quite nicely was "Pujara is the greatest Dravid since Dravid himself!"
“Cricket is very simple... You play till you can sustain,” – Kapil Dev
Patient and parched Pujara not just sustained for 668 relentless minutes in torrid conditions but also guided his side like a silent guardian and helped India dash the Aussie plans of a series win. He was a paradigm of mental strength when at the crease.
Even after a Herculean effort, he could be seen throwing his body around and saving precious runs for his team. He is a humble servant of Indian cricket who isn't as flamboyant as Virat Kohli but is an important cog in the Indian wheel.
He unequivocally deserves every ounce of appreciation for his profound commitment and exceptional performance. The extraordinary performances throughout the home season has brought a great piece of responsibility over his shoulders.
He seems driven and motivated to conjure up plenty of runs in the upcoming season and reliable to deliver his responsibilities. Pujara’s burning hunger for runs, loyalty toward his roots and will to walk on hot coals attitude for his nation makes him the jewel in the crown of Indian cricket team.