Even before the ball had reached the boundary Nathan Lyon had already started applauding. Cheteshwar Pujara was still a couple of yards down the pitch, his bat still over his right shoulder, his eyes firmly on the ball to ensure it has beaten the long-on fielder. It's only once he was assured the ball had hit the ropes in front of the Southern Stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground did he raise his bat and soak in the ovation for his 17th Test century.
At the start of the series, all the talk had revolved around Virat Kohli, but deep down Australia would have known that to break India they needed to eradicate Pujara. Josh Hazlewood emphasised the same point in Perth when he was asked if Kohli was the prized scalp for the Australian team. "No, definitely not, I probably see Pujara as the big wicket as far India is concerned when I'm bowling. He is the glue that holds them together," he had said.
Hazlewood was right and the way Lyon showed his adulation on Thursday is a testimony to that statement. It is difficult to contemplate that he was dropped for the opening Test in England, but ever since then, he has scored 702 runs, with three hundreds at an average of 50.14. The figures are nearly on par with Kohli during that time frame, but it is still the Indian skipper that continues to attract all the attention.
Pujara has now firmly stamped his authority as a batsman that can score hundreds on the bouncy pitches of Australia. He arrived Down Under without a ton to his belt on these shores, but in five innings, he has managed to conjure up two. Both tons have been on contrasting surfaces, both pivotal to setting up the Test match for his country and both a mastery of his art.
The knock in Melbourne might have given Pujara the ultimate satisfaction given that it was his slowest hundred in his career. For a batsman who is not the quickest between wickets, he had to run plenty of threes, not only off his bat but also his partners.
This pitch in Melbourne was right up Pujara's alley, it was slow and low. It required plenty of discipline and patience - the two main ingredients in Pujara's batting. While all the focus was on Mayank Agarwal on the opening day, he quietly went about his business, handling Lyon with ease and accumulating runs against the fast bowlers by wearing them out.
Before the series, there was a theory that the Indian No 3 didn't have enough shots to excel. The Australian seamers had tried to bore him out by bowling on the 5th stump line and having the ball rise around his mid-riff. There was a belief in the Australian camp that he had no shot for that length unless he was given the width. But as Pujara showed in Adelaide, he was prepared to wait and then if the line was marginally off, he could uppercut the ball.
In Melbourne, the lack of pace in the pitch meant Pujara could ride the bounce with ease. Suddenly it has opened up another scoring zone for him. When he reached his century, close to 30% of his runs had come down at third man. By the time Pujara reached his century, he had scored only 22 runs in front of square on the off-side, most of them off Lyon. Apart from a cover-drive very early in the innings, he resisted the temptation to drive in front of square due to the uneven surface.
Throughout his innings, Pujara had to deal with the uneven bounce of the pitch. Intermittently, a ball would rise off the length and thud into his gloves or shoot along the ground.
At the end of day's play, Pujara was asked about the sluggishness of his innings and why it was difficult to score freely on the MCG pitch. He said, "The kind of pace, as batsmen it is tough to get used to this pace, it is slower and one oddball kicks up and I got hit on my finger 3-4 times. Those were not short balls. They were back of length and I got hit on my gloves. As batsmen, there is always doubt when playing on such pitches and the ball which I got out to I couldn't have done anything about that. So if it stays low, you have limited options."
From the outside, Cheteshwar Pujara is a batsman with limited options, but despite the restrictions, he continues to churn out the runs in all parts of the world, gaining the respect of the opposition. It is a demonstration of skills and mental strength. Hazlewood was right, Pujara is the glue of this batting order.
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