Not often these days you see an India Test player sweat it out in a quaint tier-II city ahead of a highly anticipated series.
But for Cheteshwar Pujara, a Ranji Trophy outing with Saurashtra in his backyard in Rajkot seemed to be the ideal platform to set his plans in motion for next month’s Border-Gavaskar Trophy Tests against Australia.
When a player of such stature descends to spend some time at a place where he had once revelled before putting on the national whites, it naturally sends the opposition on the back foot.
However, Andhra was unflinching as it took on Saurashtra in the sixth round of the Ranji Trophy this week. It had an adept leader in Hanuma Vihari, a batter who has often been considered as Pujara’s clone in the Test XI.
One expects invincible consistency from them at this level – Pujara’s First Class average in India is 59.46 after 232 innings.
But when his team was pursuing Andhra’s hefty 415-run first-innings total, Pujara succumbed to a terrific plan laid out for him by Vihari and a 19-year-old seamer.
The duel between Nitish Kumar Reddy and Pujara lasted only seven deliveries. Nitish went for the kill from ball one. He had placed a forward short-leg, square leg and a short mid-wicket for Pujara straightaway. The plan was simple – to cramp the batter and take away as many scoring zones as possible. But executing it to perfection against the batting behemoth took some doing.
Nitish was happy to offer Pujara a couple of freebies outside the off-stump after rip-snorting Harvik Desai with an unplayable bouncer. Pujara gracefully accepted the half-volley and crunched it to the deep cover fence. Nitish returned with a forceful attack towards the middle-and-leg stump in the next over. In the third delivery, Nitish drew the ball back to the ‘channel’ and gently moved it in towards the off stump. A movement so subtle and late off length that Pujara’s defence was breached despite him reaching the line of the ball and prodding forward to block. Pujara admitted it was a “very good ball” at the end of the match.
On Day 1, Pujara had spent some time assessing the pitch with skipper Jaydev Unadkat before having a light 10-minute throwdown session on the edge of the boundary.
What would he do now? Certainly, Pujara need not brood over one delivery. But Nitish’s delivery was good enough to raise alarm bells of what Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins (yes, it was that good) could do during the Test series.
Pujara arrived from the dressing room on the third morning at 8:30 am and headed straight towards the batting nets at the SCA Stadium, skipping past the little football-handball game of his teammates.
He frantically moved from one net to the other after facing a few deliveries in each of them. He was aiming for the hardest surface, probably one that resembled the one inside the stadium.
Pujara soon moved into his unfailing character, and the drives and the flicks began to flow. He had an immensely built seam bowler, a throwdown specialist, and a left-arm spinner in operation. He was working on more than one of his recent shortcomings simultaneously.
In his nearly 13-year international career, Pujara has been dismissed 14 times to left-arm spin. However, the tribe has haunted him more often since 2020 – eight of those dismissals have come in this period.
Pujara continued to present a straight face and batted for nearly 45 minutes in full flow before returning to the pavilion.
In his second act on the pitch, exactly two years after his epochal Gabba rearguard, Pujara found himself in all too familiar (excruciating) waters once again. Saurashtra, two down, was caught between going after a 343-run target and saving its unbeaten run in the tournament as Pujara stepped out on a Day 4 pitch.
He was received by Nitish once again. But for Pujara, that contest was lost in the past, and he had a bigger objective to fulfil. While he ended his century drought for India in Bangladesh last month, a match-saving knock here would only get him flared up to meet Australia.
Pujara played a square-cut with such disdain that Vihari quickly realised what was coming and immediately fell back to his spinners – Andhra’s best bet with two sessions left in the match.
Pujara launched a counter by bisecting the fielders on the on-side and driving and cutting through off for a slew of boundaries. As his partners fell to the guile and sharpness of left-arm spinner Lalith Mohan and off-spinner Shoaib Khan, Pujara continued to meet the ball with accustomed ease but typically invested effort.
He even employed the sweep shot to negate the length from the spinners - something you would not immediately relate with his batting over the years.
He would later tell Andhra batter Ashwin Hebbar, who scored his maiden First Class century in the match, “When you are young, your focus must be to add as many shots as possible in your game.
“But what’s more important is to play as many matches as possible, especially four-day games and gain that experience. But now, when I prepare for a game, I am not just doing it for an innings here. You must have noticed I have been using the sweep more often here. I realise it’s essential now because I am preparing to play for India.”
Australian off-spinner Nathan Lyon, Hazlewood and Cummins have been among the most penetrative bowlers against Pujara in international cricket. And the 34-year-old is as engrossed in his preparation as he was when he was a rookie.
Watching him silently maintain his rigour and uniquely successful methods - one that has earned him 98 Test caps - in Rajkot was an education.
We shall wait for the results in February.