Pujara reiterates value of thrift and circumspection
Cheteshwar Pujara struck his 1st century in Australia. (AFP Image)

ADELAIDE: Brick by painstaking brick, with great attention to the minutest detail and with scant regard for the mayhem unfolding around him, Cheteshwar Pujara erected a masterpiece at the Adelaide Oval on Thursday. On a day when his top-order colleagues batted with the munificence of a billionaire, the artisan from Saurashtra reiterated the value of thrift and circumspection, only falling back on a lavishness of spread when in the company of the less gifted lower-order.

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Castigated in recent times for a massive skew in his home and away records, the right-hander took a tiny step towards erasing that anomaly with a wonderful unbeaten 132 against England in Southampton in August. On day one of the first Test against Australia, Pujara wowed an engrossed audience with a masterful compilation that showed up the technical and mental inadequacies of his mates, and single-handedly ensured that India stayed afloat on a day that could have gone horribly wrong for them.

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There is much to appreciate about Pujara, but nothing more than patience and the ability to bat long hours without focusing on the score board and the numbers it projects. If the situation dictates that he remain scoreless for long periods, so be it. If the conditions call for him to keep letting the ball sail by and not offer a bat unless he has to, he is more than prepared. If the heat and the humidity necessitate intense concentration in the face of severe physical discomfort, he is game.

Pujara showcased the value of old-fashioned Test match batsmanship, a lesson that hopefully will not be lost on the rest of the more flamboyant batting line-up. He said it took him ‘two sessions to assess the pitch’ and ascertain what strokes he could play. Several of his attack-minded partners couldn’t wait for longer than 20 or 30 minutes, sucked into the vortex of wideness that Australia’s disciplined pacers adopted and putting the men behind the stumps in business repeatedly.

India lost KL Rahul to the 12th ball of the series, the first in a sequence of ill-advised wafts outside off that seemed to have swept through the ranks like a contagion. M Vijay, Rahul’s opening partner, was only slightly less culpable of throwing it away as India’s woes at the top spilled over to another overseas Test, and while it took a special catch from Usman Khawaja leaping to his left at gully to evict Virat Kohli, there was nothing special about the captain’s distant waft to a wide ball he should have left well alone.

Cheteshwar Pujara and R Ashwin batted with assurance that was lacking in India's top order. (AFP Image)
Cheteshwar Pujara and R Ashwin batted with assurance that was lacking in India’s top order. (AFP Image)

If there was an ally Pujara would have banked on to bed in like him and play the situation, it was Ajinkya Rahane. However, the vice-captain played out a horror repeat run of the forgettable first-day, first-show act, reaching out to drive Josh Hazlewood and offering a simple catch to the slip cordon. At 41 for four in the 21st over, India’s designs of a tall first-innings tally to attack the hosts’ supposedly fragile batting line-up had come seriously unstuck.

If Pujara was affected by the goings-on, as he surely must have been, he made an excellent job of hiding it. It was as if the runs didn’t exist so far as he was concerned; he was stuck on 11 for 31 deliveries as Rohit Sharma briefly counter-attacked, but never looked antsy or desperate to reach the dozen. Rishabh Pant flailed around in trying to impose himself on an attack that was qualitatively far superior to anything he has encountered thus far; it made no impact on Pujara’s focus. It wasn’t until the phlegmatic R Ashwin joined him that Pujara slowly started to tick off the runs, his confidence in his partner stemming from the offspinner’s compactness in defence.

Pujara is something of a paradox. He takes plenty of time for his first 50 on most occasions, no matter what the opposition or the game situation, and then builds on it in an almost frenzied burst of strokeplay. On Thursday, he got to his fifty in 153 deliveries, and translated it into his 16th Test ton in a further 78 balls. By then, Australia had taken the second new ball, and Pujara exploded in a flurry of strokes – a pull off Hazlewood over fine-leg for just his 10th Test six, followed by another savage pull that sailed to the square-leg fence, took him past 5,000 Test runs, and thrust him to 99.

A whip through square-leg off Pat Cummins brought up three-figures, celebrated with more gusto in the stands and by his team-mates than the man himself. A flicked four off Mitchell Starc, followed by a rasping slash over point for Test six No. 11, showcased a side to Pujara that hasn’t always made itself felt.

“To be honest, when I was preparing back home, I was working on a few shots and that was one of them,” he said later of that slashed six. “I wasn’t surprised that I hit it for a six because I had worked on it back home. This is one of my top innings in Test cricket, I could say top five. The team-mates were appreciative, they were saying it was one of the best.”

It took a wonderful pick-up and throw from Cummins off the day’s final delivery to stop Pujara’s imperious march at 123. Truth to tell, that was perhaps the only way the Aussies could have outed him.