Except for his dismissal, bowled between bat and pad, Cheteshwar Pujara’s 52 in the first Test against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens, was an innings of near perfection. It wasn’t the most fluent innings. It wasn’t the most aggressive or most graceful. But, in the context of the conditions under which it was played, it was one of the most incisive exhibitions of the batting craft one could ever hope to witness. He scored 143 in the second test in Nagpur. Prior to that first Test, he had made 13 centuries, including double centuries. None was quite as accomplished as that Eden Gardens masterpiece.
The decision to ask India to bat was an easy one for Dinesh Chandimal, for the pitch was green in a way not seen in a Test in India for years. The start was delayed by rain. And as soon as the players finally gathered on the field, they have ushered off again before a ball was bowled.
When play got underway, it was immediately and predictably apparent that batting would be tough. Lokesh Rahul found himself trudging off back to the pavilion, caught by the wicketkeeper, after the first ball of the game. It was simply unplayable: a bouncing delivery that landed around offstump before shifting towards the slips. Something akin to a fast legbreak.
Pujara, batting at three, knew what he was stepping into. Even so, he barely survived his first ball, one that zipped through between bat and pad. But the high bounce that was instrumental in defeating Rahul, saved him, the ball travelling directly over his stumps through to the keeper.
A few sports, diving and gymnastics, for example, have what is called a degree of difficulty. It is a system of scoring where the more challenging routines or manoeuvres are weighted more heavily than the less challenging ones. A performer would, therefore, receive higher marks for a difficult routine performed perfectly than a not so difficult one performed equally well.
If batting had a similar marking system then the degree of difficulty on the first morning at the Eden Gardens would have been very high indeed, and Pujara would have received a very high mark, a perfect 10 perhaps. It doesn’t matter that his knock didn’t result in an Indian win. It’s possible they’d have lost had he failed.
There was a little swing, but the major concerns were exaggerated seam movement and steep bounce. Driving on the up, for instance, was a hazardous exercise, as Shikar Dhawan soon found out when his expansive drive off a Suranga Lakmal delivery, intended to send the ball humming through the offside, crashed into his stumps via his inside edge.
Lakmal, by this time, was relishing the helpful environment. Not a single run was scored off his bowling until his seventh over, by which time he had grabbed all three wickets to fall.
Pujara remained a model of focus and fortitude throughout. While others were pulled like magnets to deliveries outside off or attempted injudicious drives, he played late and ignored anything even slightly offline. Doing commentary, former Australian opener Matthew Hayden said that leaving the ball is one of the hardest things a batsman has to do. Well, it seemed second nature to India’s number three.
Recognizing what balls to leave is probably the skill most required by batsmen seeking a long life on such spiteful surfaces.
If bowlers hoped to get Pujara to play then they had to threaten his stumps. And whenever they did, and the ball was full enough or short enough, he strode forward assuredly to drive or rocked back to pull. Boundaries were his main scoring currency and he found the ropes 10 times.
He was beaten on occasion, as would every other batsman, living or dead, on that surface. But, unperturbed, he went serenely on his way, always seeming to make the right decision, knowing that one unwise move could bring about his demise.
Interruptions due to rain and bad light allowed only 32.5 overs over the first two days. India entered the third day on 74/5, Pujara 47 not out. He never lasted long on the third day, adding only five runs before Lahiru Gamage breached his defence with one that deviated into the batsman. You needed luck to survive for long on this surface and his had run out, though it has to be admitted that the gap between bat and pad was too wide.
After such a display, however, Pujara should be forgiven for what was probably his lone error. He had just displayed rare qualities of concentration and skill. This may seem ridiculous, but I’d argue that of all the innings he’s played — and he has played some of the high quality — this was his best. It was a masterpiece whose worth was not diminished by its lack of bulk. Viv Richards, the great, regarded his 61 against India at Sabina Park in 1983 as his best effort. A great innings need not be one of great size.
Some of the best innings were constructed under trying circumstances or in treacherous conditions. Graham Gooch’s 154 against the West Indies at Headingley was made in damp conditions on a seaming wicket against a menacing pace attack. The Cape Town wicket was also seaming in 2012 and Dale Steyn was at his best. Yet Sachin Tendulkar came up with 146. It was, the great batsman said, one of the most enjoyable and challenging innings he’s played.
Far from diminishing the quality of the game, sporting tracks frequently seem to breathe life into them. Rather than engaging in run-scoring festivals, batsmen have to plumb the limits of their abilities to survive and to score runs. On such surfaces, luck will have a bigger role to play than usual. But observing batsmen summoning all their skills make for tantalizing viewing.
Innings like Pujara’s is one reason many of us are so fond of cricket’s longest format. Such an epic struggle, evolving over hours and days would obviously not be possible in any other format. Pujara will no doubt play a number of other great innings before his career comes to a halt. But, in the end, he will look back at his 52 in 2017 against Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens as probably his best effort.