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Cheteshwar Pujara was immaculate with another century vs England in the current series AFP

Let me begin by asking the readers if they had imagined Cheteshwar Pujara to get to three-figures in Test cricket by clearing the fence? Well, majority of us would have refrained from answering positively. Pujara’s image in world cricket has been that of a slow starter at the crease who believes in dealing with boundaries rather than big hits. Nonetheless, this only gives a glimpse of Pujara’s current mindset as he notched up 3,000 runs and 10th ton, courtesy a huge six, on Day One of the second Test between India and England. LIVE Cricket Scorecard: India vs England 2nd Test at Vizag

This is the same player who was in question during India’s tour of West Indies in mid-2016 but he has managed to turn the tides in his favour in no time. A relatively quiet and shy customer, Pujara does not express much on the field but gives it back to his critics with the willow. Ever since India have returned to familiar territories for a long and grueling home season, Pujara has not only looked his usual best but also exhibited positive intent from the word go.

Pujara penalised for slow-paced innings:

A relatively slow starter at the crease, Pujara was finding it difficult to time his strokes in the Caribbean. In the two Tests he played, his scores read 16 and 46. He got starts but took ample time for his half-hearted innings. His 16 consumed 89 balls in Antigua while he took 223 deliveries for his 46 at Jamaica. He was axed for the third Test at St. Lucia for Rohit Sharma. Not only this, Virat Kohli came in at No. 3 which meant Pujara was in for a tricky period if he had to return into the Playing XI.

Kohli’s sudden promotion in batting gave clear indications that India’s think-tank did not want their No. 3 batsman to waste as many balls as Pujara did and slow the pace of the game in process. Though Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane‘s promotion (the latter also came in at No. 4 instead of No. 5) did not lead to effective results. An adamant Kohli stated after the third Test, “I would like to bat at No. 3. Rahane is solid for us at No. 4 and Rohit is dangerous at No. 5. I don t mind taking responsibility and batting ahead, which gave a clear picture of the side’s thought process.

However, Pujara rectified his flaws and batted for hours in Duleep Trophy 2016-17 piling up 453 runs. His scores of 166 (off 280 balls) and 256 (off 363 balls) showed glimpse of his rich vein of form and how much his slow-paced innings had hurt him too. He was more than up for the challenge as India did not drop him in their first home series against New Zealand. Pujara gets bulk of runs in home conditions and is always going to be India’s mainstay at home. Seeing this, India did not gamble with the No. 3 spot and Pujara has, so far, delivered in full swing.

Pujara playing for image changeover?

Pujara’s scores in the first four innings versus Kiwis read: 62, 78, 87 and 4. It may reflect that Pujara was in fine form but the third Test took the cricketing arena by surprise. It gave alarming signals to the other tourists in line of Pujara’s mindset and form. He was destined for a hundred and registered one in the final innings of the decisive Test at Indore. With a 257-run lead in the first innings, Pujara opened in the second outing as regular opener Gautam Gambhir was injured. India needed quick runs (approximately around 250) to dictate terms. This was Pujara’s ultimate test to grab the limelight with a quickfire 80, if not 100, and prove his mettle who can shift gears at will.

Pujara scored 101 off 148 balls (strike-rate standing at 68.24) which not only gave New Zealand a steep target (to which they eventually faltered), but also presented a revamped form of himself in front of spectators and pundits of the game. There were two out-of-the-blue shots from Pujara’s blade which showed his ominous touch and captured his positive frame of mind to attack freely. In the 25th over of India’s second innings, Pujara galloped down the track against Trent Boult to hammer the red leather past the bowler. He also brought up his eighth ton with a very unlikely Pujara shot stating that he possesses ability to accelerate as well.

Kohli’s smile in the dressing room showed his relief as Pujara not only hit a purple patch but was also striking the ball at a brisk rate, just what the doctor skipper ordered in West Indies. Things did not take a backseat against England either. Pujara’s bat leaked runs and again he managed scoring at an impressive strike-rate (by Test standards). After England posted a mammoth 537 in the series opener’s first innings at Rajkot, India were 68 for 1 in reply. Pujara came in at No. 3 at his home ground and appeared to be a man-on-a-mission. He was positive with his footwork, confident with his defense, came down the track against tweakers (also witnessed in New Zealand series) and never looked uncomfortable in the 22-yard.

Yes, he was a little tentative against the balls outside off stump, missing out on a few occasions, and against Chris Woakes’ bouncers, but he held his bat. Usually, Pujara is seen getting bogged down and rusty if challenged but that was not the case in Rajkot. He unleashed onto the spinners while did not throw his wicket against England’s best bet, Stuart Broad. He, in this process, made another nonchalant century and departed for 124 off 206 balls. His strike rate read 60.19 which was the highest compared to India’s other reputed batsmen.

The script remained the same on Day One of the second Test at Visakhapatnam. Pujara displayed positive intent, even ran hard between wickets, found the gaps especially against pacers against whom he is normally cautious and thus achieved his tenth Test ton. He did get slow in between but was unfazed by it.

He was immaculate with his footwork against the spinners with his attacking and recently-more-used ploy of dancing down the track to convert deliveries into full toss with his nimble feet. On the other hand, he waited for mistakes from James Anderson and his fellow pacers to yield runs off them. He was apt with his wrists and hardly gave any chance in his 119 run knock off 204 balls (strike-rate: 58.33). It is visible that Pujara is enjoying the confidence of his team management, and he is turning the heat with consistent performances.

Playing more freely brings out the best from him?

There must have been some pep talk between Pujara and the team management which has allowed him to express freely and thus has worked wonders till now. Strike-rate is not a talking point in Tests but in Pujara’s case, his place was being threatened for being ‘overtly-defensive’. No one exactly knows what Anil Kumble and Kohli have said to Pujara but it has introduced cricket lovers to a more confident and gritty Pujara.

The new-Pujara is not shy of taking on the opposition bowlers’, fights harder than before for survival and most importantly looks to attack at will. His two timely maximums, off Zafar Ansari and Adil Rashid, on opening day of second Test seems to be a trailer of his batting prowess for the remaining 8 Test matches to be hosted by India till March 2017.

(Aditya Sahay is a journalist with CricketCountry who is completely into sports and loves writing about cricket in general. He can be followed on Twitter at adisahay7)