Pujara's sedan finds need for speed on fast lane

Cheteshwar Pujara knuckles down and grinds out another innings when the odds are stacked against him, going from eight off 62 to 75 off 139 before tea.

Pujara drives through the covers during his knock of 81.   -  K.R. Deepak

Grafters don't usually make good viewing. But there is a rebellious pleasure in watching a batsman knuckle down for a 62-ball eight, especially when the odds are stacked against him. It’s like building a monument of abstinence, only for it to be torn apart methodically when the time is ripe. Watching Pujara bat in the second innings in Visakhapatnam felt a bit like that.

For a batsman whose game is based on the ability to keep out good balls for longer periods – and he got a handful of those – Pujara executed his game plan to precision.

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Here is a man who, while coming through the ranks, had to score double hundreds because back in Rajkot, where he grew up, people wouldn’t notice just the fifties and hundreds. So he knows to put the biggest price possible on his wicket.

On Saturday, Pujara, batting alongside a free-flowing Rohit Sharma, consumed 67 deliveries to move from zero to 20. India had lost in-form opener Mayank Agarwal early in the second innings, and a 71-run lead meant the think tank couldn’t be cavalier in its declaration.

Pujara scored his first fifty-plus score of his last six innings. Photo: PTI

 

“It was a slightly two-paced wicket early on, rotating the strike and timing the ball was difficult,” Pujara said at the end of fourth day’s play.

“But once my body warmed up... I changed my point of impact. When I walked in, I was playing the ball late and hard, but the wicket was on the slower side, so I switched to playing in front of the pad against the spinners to generate more power. The way Rohit was batting at the other end allowed me to settle down,” he added.

Another wicket at that stage could’ve given the South African bowlers, who showed good discipline upfront, a glimpse of a fightback.

Former India coach Anil Kumble had told Pujara after the West Indies series in 2016 that there was nothing wrong with his batting, that he just had to work on his intent. If his intent was right, then he could be on top of the bowler even when he was defending.

That sense of purpose was on display at the ADC-VDCA Stadium where, even when runs were proving hard to come by, he stepped out to the spinners instead of merely dead-batting every delivery.

Pujara’s patience and perseverance paid off, as he shed the defensive approach for some attractive stroke play, going from eight off 62 to 75 off 139 before tea, collecting 67 off his last 77 balls.

“We had a game plan. We wanted to bat normally till tea, play proper cricketing shots and then assess where we stood during the break,” he said.

Former India coach Anil Kumble sought intent from Pujara's game in 2016.

 

“Once you have got your eye in on day four, the focus shifts to putting away the loose balls. We knew we will have to bowl a few overs today, which we did and even got a wicket which puts us in a good position ahead of day five.”

After subduing the spinners with his preferred flick shot through mid-wicket, he switched his attention to Kagiso Rabada, blunting his threat by scoring boundaries off him for five overs on the trot ahead of the break. He even hit two sixes off Dane Piedt’s bowling.

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“There’s enough rough for the spinners and the cracks will open up... There’s already some variable bounce for the spinners. That said playing the pacers off the cracks will be more difficult,” he noted.

Pujara was eventually dismissed by Vernon Philander for 81 but not before he had ground the Protean bowlers’ confidence to dust, with his brick-wall defence and dogged defiance.

While most in the current team may bat like Lamborghinis cruising uptown, Pujara’s game has the assurance and warmth of a family sedan.