Cheteshwar Pujara oozes permanence as he finds another score that counts

Cheteshwar Pujara punches off the back foot
July 03, 2022

On a day which began with the ongoing and freakish adventures of Jonny Bairstow, in a summer in which England believe they're on a mission to sex up Test cricket, appreciating a 139-ball 50 not out by Cheteshwar Pujara can't help but come across as a little Test Batting Porn (you know, as is done with poverty or suffering in general: exploiting it to create sympathy and support for the cause).

Poor Pujara, look at him, no IPL contract, a T20 strike rate of 109, nobody talking about his specific match-ups because, haha, the entire format is the match-up. But there he is, battling it out for the old ways, doing it for the little format. Let's be patronising about all the things that he is really good at doing, which we worry are things that are dying, things that need to be taken up as a cause. Concentration or patience, or nurdles off the thighs that dribble apologetically to square leg, and we move another few seconds closer to our end but no closer to the meaning of life.

It is definitely a thing. Having gone unsold in every IPL auction since 2015, he was picked in 2021 by Chennai Super Kings and the room erupted in applause. That was very Test Batting Porn, especially because Pujara then didn't play a single game all season.

This is definitely none of that. This was Pujara doing what he has been doing all his career, in much the same way he's done it always, which let's not forget, has been 1) a very successful approach and 2) has come as part of a pretty successful side. He's not saving Test match batting, he's winning Tests for India.

This one probably might end up meaning a little bit more because Pujara was returning to the side, having been dropped for the two-Test series against Sri Lanka. And that was really the first time since the start of 2017 that he had been out of India's plans. And though the selectors always sold the exclusion as a temporary one, for that series alone, Pujara's record in the preceding three years, his age (34) and the frankly tiresome debate about his intent meant it felt more final.

Forget no hundred since the Sydney New Year Test of 2019, Pujara is averaging 28 in his last 28 Tests. That's 30 percent of his career that he's averaged 28 in. It's not as if he was not contributing. There were important hands: the 56 in the Brisbane epic, the 77 in the Sydney epic - both wonderfully hedged innings that dumped defeat, kept the draw hanging on and flirted with the win - and the 45 at Lord's where he came in with India minus 9 for one, saw them fall to, effectively 27 for 3, and steered them through to a lead of 128 by the time he was fourth out. That is why he wasn't dropped. Until he was, when the pressure of that waning average became too much.

But not being sold at the IPL this year was the start of his return. It allowed him to slip into county cricket and find, as he told the Indian Express, the rhythm for those big scores. Not hundreds, he said, but big hundreds, like two double-hundreds and an unbeaten 170 for Sussex. Time spent at the crease is Pujara's oxygen. Runs will come, but are secondary.

There was, Kumar Sangakkara explained on air, a slight change in stance, a little more side-on than last year. But so much of this was Pujara as we've known him. The leave was well and truly present, including to a number of deliveries - mostly from Stuart Broad - that were shaping in. Quantitatively, it was not different to how much he has left in England across his last nine Tests - he left roughly 30 percent of the balls he faced.

There was intent in the running, if not always the speed to back it up. The pick of his few boundaries were the two back-foot punches off Broad and Ben Stokes, the shot where Pujara is perhaps at his most elegant. Besides that, everything else was present and correct: the play-and-misses, the soft hands to kill the edges, the wearing of a couple on the gloves - including one that required lengthy treatment for a cut finger.

This summer in England, run-scoring in Tests has mostly come after 30 overs of the new ball, when the ball has softened and the middle order has changed gears and cashed in. Not Pujara: he was then as he had been before. He was looking permanent enough at the crease for James Anderson - of all the bowlers - to go round the wicket and try and bounce him out. He wore one on the shoulder, dropped his hands on one, rode the bounce on a couple and dropped the ball dead at his feet: no chance he was going to take it on as the short ball has been taken on all summer.

"He is a warrior," Mohammed Siraj said admiringly at the end of the day. "He showed that in Australia and he has done it here as well. When the team needs it, he just has this attitude. When it is a tough situation, then he wants to stand up and deliver."

Siraj had faced Bairstow's onslaught in the morning, but he knows who he'd rather bowl to and it isn't Pujara. "He doesn't attack much and leaves a lot of balls. It can be irritating bowling to him in the nets as well."

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