David Ferrer, the Spanish tennis player, has earned the nickname ‘the little beast’. The moniker is as unlikely as it is unwanted; Ferrer stands just five foot nine, has no tattoos, and is one of the more polite players on the tour. But the name came from his relentless pursuit of the tennis ball, his determination to chase down every single ball, keep it in, and extend the rally.
After what is probably Cheteshwar Pujara’s best ever innings, the Australians might be calling him that. The Beast. Only instead of him pursuing balls, he consumed them. 525 of them, more than Wriddhiman Saha, KL Rahul and Murali Vijay faced combined. His intrepid display had the visitors chasing leather for more than 200 overs. Every time he ducked a bouncer, left outside off stump, kicked away balls pitched outside leg, or defended when he wasn’t to the pitch of the ball, he forced the visitors to fight fatigue as well as the batters. It was passive aggressive, attritional batting of the highest level. Wait a few years to read the autobiographies of some of the Australian bowlers; chances are, they may describe this as one of the longest days of their life.
Long is a word that Pujara favours. Time can be his weapon as much as timing, the clock on the wall can defeat an opponent just as the bat in his hand can. By batting 525 balls, and playing an innings that spanned two nights, he ensured India would not feel the brunt of losing the toss on a classic Indian pitch, where batting last is the biggest challenge. It wasn’t always pretty; it wasn’t the most fast paced Test match cricket. But Pujara no longer has the slow-scoring monkey on his back.
Since being dropped against the West Indies in 2014, Pujara has shown that he has the higher gear, the ability to play quickly when demanded. But this situation did not demand it. This situation demanded that he bat long, that he score not just a hundred, but a scorecard monolith, something he has a reputation of doing, but has not done off late (his last score of more than 125 came in august 2015). On Sunday, he got that monkey off his back too.
About eight years ago, while playing a domestic tournament in Rajkot, our state team coach got wind that Pujara was training at the same ground as we were, and asked him to spare a few minutes to talk to us. By this time, he had already earned the reputation for batting incredibly long and scoring double hundreds in first-class cricket. He spoke to us about the work ethic that had gotten him to that point. He told us batted alone for hours at a time in the nets.
That sounds like fun, but I assure you, it’s not. With no partner at the other end to take turns with, it can be exhausting. After about 20 minutes, the back and forearm muscles start protesting. You have to consciously take time between balls. The bowlers keep coming at you, and fatigue disfigures form. You are batting against your body as much as the ball. In the average team net session, a player might bat for 15 minutes, or half an hour batting in a pair. Pujara’s currency was hours, not minutes. That volume of preparation is what helped him score those double hundreds so frequently. That kind of preparation came in handy in Ranchi.
“I have the experience of playing long innings in domestic cricket”, he told bcci.tv after the fourth day. “The experience matters a lot.”
So many parallels have been drawn between Pujara and Rahul Dravid that the differences are forgotten. So accustomed are we to the narrative of Pujara succeeding Dravid that we forget that Pujara made his debut before Dravid said his farewell.
While Dravid was a treat for the aesthete as well as the stats geek, Pujara’s strokes never boasted the same fluency. Besides the differences between their individual styles, this stems from the differences in their grips. Dravid had the classical grip with the hands spread evenly over the handle, holding it roughly around the middle. Pujara’s grip is decidedly bottom handed, with the top of his bat handle protruding from his gloves like a samurai’s topknot. You can see it in his straight drives, particularly against spin. They are rarely high elbow shots, but more gouges from the off stump to the right of the bowler, bisecting the non striker and mid on. You can see it in his most productive shot over this innings, the flick.
Yet Pujara’s bottom handedness has rarely fettered him. An excessively dominant bottom hand can mean driving the ball in the air from time to time, yet Pujara paints lines along the turf when he bats. He dominates with his top hand while playing on the off-side, and takes advantage of the bottom handed grip while playing to leg. Critical to his success, is the ability to read the length, particularly while using his feet.
By ensuring he is to the pitch of the ball, and defending when he isn’t, he shields himself from the downsides of a bottom handed grip, while harvesting its benefits. According to Cricviz, Pujara has stepped out 471 times in his entire career, and scored at 84.08 while doing so. Of those 471 forays outside the crease, only two have resulted in dismissals.
Pujara said on Sunday that this is one of his best double hundreds. He has 11 to choose from in first-class cricket, now three in Test cricket. The longer Ferrer played a rally, the more likely you thought it was that he would win it. Pujara was denied a richly deserved hundred in Bengaluru by a special delivery from Josh Hazelwood. In Ranchi, he went longer, and found double the joy.
The writer is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She tweets @SnehalPradhan
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