By Derek Abraham
Benoni: Dec 14, 2013
‘Leave them alone and they’ll come home’ goes the popular nursery rhyme ‘Little Bo-Peep’. Cheteshwar Pujara was doing much the same at Willowmore Park in Benoni on Friday. Umesh Yadav was working up some good pace, Ishant Sharma was hitting the deck hard and Zaheer Khan was getting the cherry to angle away from the right-hander. Pujara left them all alone.
On a day when bright sunshine and clear skies greeted the Indian team ahead of their two-day practice match against a South African Invitation XI, the visitors slugged it out among themselves on the centre wicket. With the mofussil town — located about 30 minutes from Johannesburg — having received more than 800 millimetres of rain in the past three weeks, even pristine conditions weren’t enough to dry out the few wet spots on the picturesque ground. Mahendra Singh Dhoni & Co. held a three-hour training session alright, but missed out on genuine match practice.
Worse, Team India media manager Dr RN Baba informed that even Saturday’s play had been called off. “It seems the wet patches won’t dry up soon. So the game has been called off. The boys will train at the same venue from 10:30 am on tomorrow (Saturday),” he said. In other words, India will go into the first Test starting December 18 just like that.
Pujara made the most of the sunshine, though. Blissfully unaware of the fact that he had been named the ‘ICC Emerging Player of the Year’, the No. 3 batsman went about his business with diligence. After letting go of a slew of deliveries from the fired-up pace attack, Pujara came into his own. No, he didn’t do anything out of the ordinary: he just played the waiting game. As he always does. And the deliveries came ‘home’ (read comfort zone). What followed was an array of shots: drives on either side and down the ground, pulls and, of course, his patented stroke — the cut.
“I believe winning isn’t everything but the desire to win is. This is a small step towards success but I wish to continue to work harder and live up and serve the nation,” Pujara said in a statement after receiving the ICC award.
Patience pays like no other virtue. And Pujara has loads of it.
Things weren’t as rosy for the Saurashtra batsman during his last sojourn to South Africa with the Indian team. With just 31 runs to show from two Tests, he was soon branded a ‘flat-track bully’.
The criticism wasn’t entirely out of place. Lonwabo Tostsobe, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn were the ones who got the better of him in 2010-11.
Pujara may have been a different batsman since that tour, but the fact is he has never been tested overseas. Yes, he has an enviable record in Tests: 15 matches, 1,310 runs, five hundreds and an average of over 65. Thirteen of those Tests were on Indian soil.
The two-match Test series will be a watershed moment for Pujara. And the young man is ready for it. “The important thing is to counter the bounce and lateral movement,” he said of the challenge.
“Once you get through that phase, the Kookaburra ball softens up and it’s easier to score.” That’s exactly what he did on Friday.
In the absence of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, Pujara has been a revelation of sorts. And now with Sachin Tendulkar no longer there, a lot more will be expected of him. Composed and canny, diligent and dependable, he could be Team India’s go-to man in South Africa. The best part is he doesn’t carry the baggage of the One-Day International (ODI) side which was thoroughly outplayed in the days gone by.
Pujara will be that glue, which holds the batting unit together. The strokemakers ought to play around him.
“The last one-and-a-half years have been really good for me. I think I have become a matured player. Playing against teams like Australia and England has helped me a lot because they have very good fast bowling units. I am very confident now. When you are mentally prepared, there are some adjustments that you need to make. When you are in the best frame of mind, you have the best chance of preparing yourself on the field.”
(The writer is Principal Correspondent at DNA, where the above article first appeared)
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