Lack of intent was cited as a major drawback in India's new 'Wall' at number three, Cheteshwar Pujara. The elevation of Virat Kohli as skipper had brought in an emphasis on aggression in India's Test team. From the five bowler strategy to preference for quicker bowlers and attacking batsmen, most of India's policy reflected intent. The Saurashtra batsman was not known for flashy shots or fashionable ramps.
Did that matter in at least one of the 525 balls, the most faced by an Indian in a Test match, he batted out at Ranchi against the Australians? Did that matter in the five hours and fifty three minutes he spent at Johannesburg to compile 153 in the first Test of the series against South Africa in 2013?
Probably yes, from a management point of view. Why else was he dropped multiple times in the past couple of years from the Test side? How can a team drop a batsman like Pujara whose technique is as close to textbook stuff as it gets? Still head, eyes on the ball and all that.
Yet, when it was conveyed to him that his lack of positive intent contributed to his ouster for Rohit Sharma, Pujara did not flinch. He knew Anil Kumble, who had conveyed it to him, at least pointed out an area to work on. Ravi Shastri had given no such luxury when dropping him in Australia. Pujara knew Kumble had a point. He wasn't asking Pujara to elevate his strike rate. He was talking on intent. The uncertainty seemed to have gone and the effects were evident in his classy 12th Test hundred on Wedneday at Galle.
Nerveless but not reckless
The old Pujara would have walked in and played like a shadow to a rampant Shikhar Dhawan. Not this Pujara. He knew to play the situation game. He had worked on it. A nervy edge off Nuwan Pradeep that ran for four was his only mishit in the 247 balls he faced on day one on a Galle track that was greener and quicker than usual.
He isn't a believer of sticking to one's natural game in Test cricket. Playing according to the situation is what Pujara counts as good batsmanship in Tests. After all, he hadn't made his Test debut before making close to 4,000 First Class runs in 50 matches at an average of a shade over 60. He knew this game all too well.
After starting off with some well-timed flicks and juicy drives, Pujara played second fiddle to Dhawan's belligerent innings at the other end. There was no need for him to be flashy and get out to rupture the momentum of the innings. Even when the boundaries did not flow, the resilient batsman was quick to rotate strike and keep Dhawan away from the non-striker’s end.
Between overs 17 and 37, Pujara got no boundaries. He was content watching Dhawan compile his fifth Test hundred and then go completely berserk. When he broke the rut, it was with a pristine drive off a full toss from a wild Lahiru Kumara and it took him to a well-deserved half-century. A sublime flick earned him another four the following ball but he was back to business after that. Another boundary off his bat did not come until after 13 overs.
Dancing shoes on
Pujara knew exactly what India needed to do to counter the Lankan spinners. After all, he had returned from a hiatus to open the innings and score a match-winning, series-winning hundred in the decider at the P Sara Oval in 2015. The plan then was to attack Rangana Herath by stepping out of the crease.
This series was dubbed as Herath versus India and the stand-in captain was Sri Lanka's sole hope in the lead up to the series. All of that was thrown into the bin as India took on Herath with fleet-footed shots. Pujara stepped out to attack the Lankan spinners quite often with more than 50 of his 144 runs coming from such advances. Forty nine of his runs at the time he scored his hundred had come between long-on and mid-wicket - evidence of his wonderful ability to pierce gaps in the field.
His ploy was simple. He would step out to disrupt Herath's rhythm and then rock back for a cut or pull. It worked wonders. Not once during his knock did Pujara look out of focus or uncomfortable. There was class and composure as he dug into the spinners, dispatching them with ease.
As Dhawan and Kohli fell, Pujara made a conscious effort to mellow down and the strike rate dropped a touch. Ajinkya Rahane took time to settle down, facing 40 balls to get to double figures, but Pujara was quick to ensure that his partner was under no pressure whatsoever.
He stepped out to Herath to milk him for two fours in the 66th over. His 12th Test hundred came soon afterward but the meticulous batsman was in no mood to throw it away. He continued to torment the Lankan bowlers till close of play, remaining unbeaten on 144 at stumps. ‘Che’, as he is fondly called, has three double hundreds in his career already and with a belter of a track on offer and Lanka's lacklustre bowling, another one is on the cards on day two.