“The difference between this and the other recent efforts of Pujara was the intent to score … and the onus on remaining positive, being constantly on the lookout for runs”
It seemed to be on the verge of any other Cheteshwar Pujara blockathon that we have been seeing for several Tests now. He had crawled to 3 from 32 deliveries. Two wickets were down, not too many runs on the board, and England seemed in control.
Joe Root, with the astuteness which strangely accompanies his often ordinary captaincy, had placed a man in deepish gully and another just backward of square leg, cutting the nudge-and-push areas usually allows Pujara to get a few singles early in the innings. The ploy seemed to be working.
Perhaps Virat Kohli’s emergence at the other end did the trick. Or perhaps it was merely a coincidence. It stands to reason that Pujara, having reached a roadblock in his defiant scoreless approaches, had planned to alter his approach anyway.
First Sam Curran delivered the half-volley, and Pujara leaned into the drive. First boundary.
But in the very next over, he slashed hard and the edge flew over the slips for four. Not the best of strokes. But there was intent. No longer was run-making a nice-to-have facet in the scheme of things, coming way down in the priority list after survival and playing dot-balls. Pujara was trying to do what any No 3 batsman is expected to, especially in champion teams. Score runs.
It was a different Pujara at the wicket.
Every time the bowler pitched short, the cut was brought into play. There was nothing tentative about it. The bat went through the arc in full flow, with a sense of purpose. A couple of times the ball flew off the edge, eluded the fielders and found the boundary, fortune as usual siding with the brave.
And when the ball was pitched in his zone, the front foot strode forward and the drive flowed. Be it a Sam Curran half-volley or a Ben Stokes attempted in-swinger gone wrong.
It was already a recharged version of Pujara we were witnessing. But when the lower middle order was scorched by the fire of the English bowling, the knock was forged into a gem.
With the field pushed back when he was on strike, Pujara picked the gaps with considerable ease, had the right amount of faith in his lower-order partners, and managed to put the bad balls away with intelligent, enterprising placement. Moeen Ali, the man who had put the Indian innings on the backfoot with quick wickets, was the recipient of some of the most exquisite of the strokes. A fierce cut off the backfoot, and two forcing shots through the mid-wicket stood out.
With Jasprit Bumrah, the last man with a highest score of 2 in Test cricket, at the other end, the Pujara innings reached the level of a genuine masterpiece. By now he was dominating the bowlers. The covers were split when the ball was overpitched. When Stuart Broad charged in with the second new ball, he was lofted over widish mid-on with nonchalance. And then, after this audacious stroke, the following ball streaked through the off-side in a classical cover drive, a stroke which had almost deserted him during the past few months.
32 runs were added with an unusually belligerent Ishant Sharma. 46 more with a resilient Bumrah. Pujara ended with an unbeaten 132 which must rank with one of the best innings of his career. A superb solo hand that spread like glue through an innings on the verge of falling apart, holding it together.
Pujara’s two blemishes were perhaps a low snick through Jos Buttler and Alastair Cook that streaked to the boundary, and the other when the ball crashed into his helmet when he missed an attempted pull. The wicket did have bounce, but not of the too disconcerting variety.
The lack of pace in the track perhaps helped him. With the wicket also becoming more helpful to the spinners, it is perhaps the closest any surface in the series has come to the subcontinental tracks. These factors probably worked for Pujara. But that does not take away any of the excellence of the knock. One has to acknowledge that apart from Virat Kohli no other batsman from the Indian side either got going or looked comfortable. With these in consideration, it was an extremely valuable innings which got India the lead against every possible odd.
As already mentioned, the difference between this and the other recent efforts of Pujara was the intent to score … and the onus on remaining positive, being constantly on the lookout for runs. It was not a defense intent on survival. It was a well-paced innings, where controlled aggression was used perfectly, ending in his dominating the bowlers.
The lack of intent had been an aspect absent from his game, and there had been plenty of criticism of the same. It is indeed supremely gratifying to see that very intent showing through in Pujara’s batting.
The match is still hanging on the knife’s edge, and plenty of drama seems to be in the offing as the two sides resume battle tomorrow. But whatever be the final outcome, the innings of Pujara will go down as a genuine classic.