Cheteshwar Pujara versus Australia, a bout for the ages

Pujara was not as prolific as he was in India's previous tour of Australia, but he again blunted a top attack to play a vital role in the 2-1 series win.

For Cheteshwar Pujara, facing Australia's pace attack on day five of the Brisbane Test must have felt like sitting inches from a blazing oven with fans blowing all the heat towards him.   -  GETTY IMAGES

For Cheteshwar Pujara, facing Australia’s pace attack on day five of the Brisbane Test must have felt like sitting inches from a blazing oven with fans blowing all the heat towards him. Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins sent down a barrage of short balls at him, but he defended his stumps as if his life depended on it. There was an almost masochistic pleasure to Pujara’s defiance at the Gabba.

While the young Shubman Gill pulled, cut and drove his way to a mesmerising 91, Pujara got struck thrice on the helmet and several times on the body. At one point, a Hazlewood delivery bounced from short of a length and rapped Pujara on the fingers of his right hand. He jumped and wrung his hand in agony.

Pujara doesn’t usually show pain easily, but this blow was too much to mask. He was floored for more than five minutes. Surely Australia had finally breached Pujara’s psychological defences? But here’s the thing: While Pujara does not claim infallibility, bowlers on the rampage are unlikely to ever see him turn his back on a fight.

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When Pujara got up to resume batting, India still needed 196 runs to win on a tricky surface. Pujara summoned his “over my dead body” attitude and sheer single-mindedness to continue. He brought up his fifty in 196 balls – his slowest in Test cricket. Along the way, yet another Hazlewood bouncer knocked the stem guard off Pujara’s helmet, but he remained unfazed.

Pujara battled his way to 56 after facing 211 balls and spending 314 minutes at the crease before Cummins trapped him lbw with the second new ball.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

The seeds of this trademark phlegmatic Pujara were sown even before he was a teen. Self-denial and discipline were just as important for him when he was 12 as they are now two decades on. This was Pujara channelling childhood lessons as India chased history in Brisbane. As a young boy, he never celebrated any festival. His father and first coach, Arvind, wouldn’t allow him to burst crackers during Diwali or fly kites at Uttarayan. “What if I burnt my hand or got a cut on my finger? He used to say, ‘You can’t miss the nets because of such injuries.’ Back in the day, coming up the ranks from a place like this (Rajkot) was not easy since there was no exposure for grade cricketers,” India’s Test No. 3 had told Sportstar during an interview in March 2019.

Pujara battled his way to 56 and spent 314 minutes at the crease before Cummins trapped him lbw with the second new ball. On a day when he endured the slings and arrows of a fickle sport, Pujara’s trance-like batting was the only certainty. He got his hands dirty and beat the opposition into submission. But then, Pujara is no stranger to adversity. It has contributed to his focus and steel as a batsman right from the start. In his debut Test against Australia in 2010, India, needing 207 to win on a fifth-day wicket in Bengaluru, had lost Virender Sehwag with 17 runs on the board. Pujara’s first innings had lasted three balls. Not only had he replaced V. V. S. Laxman in the playing XI at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, but he’d now been promoted to No. 3 ahead of Rahul Dravid. The then 22-year-old went on to make an 89-ball 72, showing spirit and spine.

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“When you just look at each and every ball, each and every over, there is no pressure,” Pujara had said then as India swept the series 2-0. In the decade since, the game has both grown and shrunk, but Pujara has remained the same. He has never been unduly bothered with perceptions around his batting. He doesn’t care how he looks while playing a shot. “As long as there is a not-out against my name, I’m on top of the opposition,” he had said in the March 2019 interview. According to Krishnamachari Srikkanth, the chairman of the selection committee when Pujara made his debut, the Saurashtra batsman had “muscled his way in” with “the sheer weight of his performance” in domestic cricket and with the India A side. And to this date, the willingness to bat for long periods remains insatiable for this coy but firm run machine.

Pujara ended the 2020-21 BorderGavaskar series with 277 runs from four Tests, but more importantly, he faced 928 balls – the most by any batsman. In the fourth innings in both Sydney and Brisbane, he valiantly stonewalled Australia’s quest for early inroads, facing 205 deliveries in the former and 211 in the latter. Since January 1981, only Murali Vijay (427), Michael Atherton (629) and Allan Border (634) have faced more deliveries than Pujara in the fourth innings in an away series.

So, while turbocharged contributions from Gill, Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar catapulted India to a memorable win on day five of the Gabba Test, it was Pujara who dug in and set up the game, laying the foundation for victory out of granite rather than sand. He weathered everything Australia threw at him. His scores and averages may not be as talked about as his performance in Australia two years ago, but Pujara will smile knowing that in Brisbane, he did not budge. And neither did his team.