On Sunday morning, even before Cheteshwar Pujara stepped out to bat, some exceptional presence of mind and genius camera work captured a rare moment: the Saurashtra batsman, waiting for the match officials to take the field, stood right behind the boundary line with his eyes shut.
This was a crucial day, India were coming out to bat at 360/6, 91 runs behind Australia’s first innings total of 451. On so many occasions, we’ve seen the Indian lower-middle order crumble in these situations.
It was crucial that Pujara who was returning to bat at 130* hung in there for long enough, and with his eyes shut, you knew he was telling himself precisely that.
Before this match began, in this home season, the Indian opening partnership averaged 29.70 while Pujara averaged 58.72, which meant that he wasn’t only contributing heavily with runs, but he was also absorbing immense pressure, seeing off the new ball, and allowing the incoming batsmen to take their time to settle.
Sunday was crucial, with so much chatter around this series and so much that was at stake for either side, it was going to be a grueling day of Test cricket.
As it turned out, in the first session, Australia dried up the runs, with Steve O’Keefe and Josh Hazelwood practically hitting the same spot on the pitch every ball. The plan seemed obvious, they wanted to bore the Indian batsmen out.
Little did they know, that in a battle of attrition, you don’t win against someone who has played so much of his cricket on the most lifeless tracks in the world in Saurashtra.
If O’Keefe bowled around his leg-stump, Pujara was happy to intercept it with his pads absorbing pressure, over after over, like a porous sponge absorbing water. This reflected in his numbers too, Pujara played 215 deliveries from O’Keefe, the most number of balls faced by any batsman off a bowler in a Test innings since 2000.
PUJARA IN 2016-17 HOME SEASON
- Matches: 12
- Runs: 1259
- Average: 66.26
- Centuries: 4
At one point during Pujara’s marathon innings, former Australian opener and now commentator Matthew Hayden admitted that he wouldn’t have been able to stay that quiet for so long without hitting the odd boundary. But this was Pujara, he knew how pivotal his stay in the middle was.
All wasn’t as rosy for Pujara though as right before lunch on day four, he missed a delivery that was angling in from Nathan Lyon and was given out LBW. But, with a redefined sense of the use of DRS, Wriddhiman Saha asked Pujara to review that decision and viola, the ball-tracker showed that the ball would miss the leg-stump.
The afternoon session post that was all Pujara. On a murky day, watching the opposition inch closer to their massive total, Australia seemed flustered. They were waiting for things to happen. Pujara and Saha, juxtaposed to that, were making things happen.
As he directed one past the short-leg fielder and ran his 200th run, for a brief moment, the zen-like monk in him took a backseat. Having batted for 521 deliveries then, and over 11 hours, the kid in him pumped his fist, leaped in the air and exulted in joy.
Stand and applaud! It's a double for @cheteshwar1 200 in 521 balls.... what a performance.— Michael Clarke (@MClarke23) March 19, 2017
He had done it, he had resurrected a scuppered boat by absorbing everything that the ocean of hardship had to throw at him.
Four balls later, he flicked one to Glenn Maxwell at short mid-wicket and ended the longest occupation of the batting crease by an Indian batsman at 202 runs off 525 balls. Immediately after that, he thumped his bat on to his pads in disappointment. He wanted to bat longer, gee, this hunger for excellence!
In an age where big-bicep batsmen pummel balls to unimaginable distances and hog all the attention in the process, it is tough to be a vintage Test batsman. But, when it is time for operation right-the-ship, guess where is everyone looking? In the Indian dressing room, it is at the impregnable Cheteshwar Pujara.