On Friday, like scores of bowling units before them, Central Zone endured the futility of bowling to Cheteshwar Pujara.
The West Zone batter had begun his six-hour-long innings on Thursday after his team had taken a 92-run lead against Central in the Duleep Trophy semifinal at the Alur (I) Cricket Ground in Bengaluru.
Spurred on by a free-flowing Suryakumar Yadav, Pujara had got to his fifty in the last over of the second day, with a strike rate close to 50.
But it was only on Friday that he fully deployed his idiosyncratic talents to the best as he brought on his 60th First-Class hundred, pulling him alongside the great Vijay Hazare’s tally.
Never once did it look like he was batting to prove a point, after being left out of the Test team for the West Indies tour. Even his celebration, after getting to his hundred, was a muted one, if you discount the fact that he lifted his bat twice to the pavilion.
For Pujara, time was the currency, the balls he faced his bank balance. The runs he acquired were just colourful marbles he picked up on his stroll out in the middle, while boundaries were just to loosen up his muscles and to remind bowlers where they stand in his long-drawn-out game of patience.
Earlier in the day, after losing fellow overnight batter Sarfaraz Khan in the first over of the day, Pujara buckled down for another long sojourn.
Avesh Khan, who was bowling the second over of Day 3, beat Pujara with the first ball he bowled to him. The Saurashtra batter, who still had his bat ever so close to his body, took a look at where the ball landed, then at his bat and then at the keeper who held possession of the ball.
He sized up the pitch, the conditions and the ball, and was never to be troubled again by a fast bowler for the rest of the day.
Almost as if to assert himself, Pujara would thrash Avesh for back-to-back boundaries. Both from square drives hit on top of his toes. The wrists rolled over to keep the ball on the ground as the fielders watched the ball race to the fence, unmoved.
That though was most of the runs he scored in the first hour, with Pujara adding just two other singles in that span.
The highlight of the day was the prolonged, almost-neurotic 111-ball staring contest he had with Saurabh Kumar. The left-arm spinner, who was treated to some delectable cut shots yesterday by Pujara, decided to go a little fuller today, constantly forcing the right-handed batter to defend on his front foot as he denied his nemesis any sort of width or bounce to go cross-batted.
Pujara played out three consecutive maiden overs off Saurabh to start with. The UP spinner varied his pace, altered his length and changed his angle, only to be blunted down by the straight bat of Pujara. His first boundary against the bowler would come close to Lunch, when Saurabh offered a full toss, which was slammed to the long-on fence.
His first (and only) play and miss against spin during the day though came against Saransh Jain. The lanky off-spinner fired one in on the good length, tempting Pujara to attempt a cut shot, only to see the keeper pouch the ball. A quick assessment of the pitch, the bat and the ball were made and then Saransh, much like Avesh, never got the better of him.
Pujara would eventually start playing shots, But that was only after he felt he was running out of partners, with Central chipping away from the other end.
Befittingly, he got to his hundred with a couple of boundaries against Saurabh – the first one an off-drive and the second a cut shot behind point, a shot he refrained from playing earlier.
An uncharacteristic, but controlled, swipe over mid-wicket for a six against Saurabh would soon follow as Pujara stepped on the accelerator.
Pujara made just two miscalculations on this day. First, he underestimated Saransh’s throwing arm as he attempted to steal a single to keep strike. Second, he didn’t foresee the incoming Bengaluru downpour which suspended the game seconds after he walked off the ground.
Two mistakes, if one can call those, which can be forgiven on an unblemished day for a batter playing a game many would have forgiven for missing out on.
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