Old-school Pujara, India's new batting hero

The right-hander's tenacity is delighting fans of old-school batting and it made him an unlikely hero of India’s Test series against Australia.

Cheteshwar Pujara en route to his double-century in Ranchi.   -  K. R. Deepak

In-form Cheteshwar Pujara isn't the flashiest batsman but his staying power at the crease is winning the admiration of cricketing purists - and could be vital in India's crunch final Test against Australia. Pujara faced 525 balls over more than 11 hours of play during his double-century against Australia in the drawn third Test, displaying a doggedness absent from most modern-day batsmen.

The right-hander's tenacity is delighting fans of old-school batting and made him the unlikely hero of a series where skipper Virat Kohli has flopped with just 46 runs in three matches. Pujara was involved in a marathon, 199-run seventh-wicket stand with Wriddhiman Saha in Ranchi, and is India's leading scorer in the tight series with 348 runs, 23 behind top-placed Steve Smith.

"I can say that at times, I am in that zone where things are happening for me because of that experience," Pujara told reporters ahead of the winner-takes-all Test in Dharamsala starting on Saturday. "Because I know how to do things, how to continue batting and how to continue concentrating for longer periods of time. I don't really think when I am batting out there in the middle. I try and keep my mind really blank," he explained.

Pujara, 29, wasn't snapped up for the forthcoming edition of the glitzy Indian Premier League, which is all about big-hitters smashing sixes, but is winning plaudits for his ability to defend his wicket. "I think his strong point is patience. He wants to stay at the wicket, grind the bowler (down). At the same time he is a very good stroke player," former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin told AFP.

‘Priceless’ Pujara

Pujara's epic knock saw him displace Kohli to take second spot in the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test batting charts behind Australia skipper Smith. During the second Test he crossed the 2,000 mark for runs in a single first-class season, joining an elite group of Indian batting greats including Azharuddin, Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath.

Pujara, who was called "priceless" by Kohli after the Ranchi game, where he recorded his third Test double century, has averaged over 51 in 47 Test matches with 11 hundreds. He made his Test debut in 2010.

Sports historian and journalist Boria Majumdar said Pujara, who has been overlooked by IPL franchises for three consecutive seasons now, is part of "a [dying] breed of Test match players" who need to be "protected" by the Indian board. "I don't actually care what keeps him out of IPL, but what I do care is that some Johnny who's a 21-year-old hitting three sixes gets a million-dollar contract and Pujara slogging for India 500 balls 10-12 hours doesn't get an IPL contract," Majumdar told AFP.

"Exceptions need to be made for a Pujara-like player and he should be rewarded out of turn in a manner that people prioritise Test cricket," added Majumdar, who co-wrote Sachin Tendulkar's autobiography.

The fourth and final Test against Australia starts in Dharamsala on Saturday with the ill-tempered series on a knife-edge at 1-1.

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