India's openers, this year away from home, have stuck together 20.90 runs on an average while lasting six overs roughly. When Cheteshwar Pujara is in the side, which appallingly wasn't always the case, it drops to 19.38 runs and six overs. That means, batting at No 3 in Tests, Pujara has been a busy man. More often than not, he is padded up even before the Indian openers walked out to the middle. There have been times when before the lacquer on the ball had worn off, he was at the crease.
Yet, facing the brand new cherry, nobody in the Indian side, except Virat Kohli, has made more runs than Pujara away from home this year. In fact, according to CricViz, his dismissal rate in the first 20 overs of a Test innings is a whopping 126.3 on an average which means he could very well be trusted to even open the innings.
This year, his 600 runs have come in 9 Tests at an average of 35.29 when none of his mates (min 3 Tests) except the skipper has managed an average over 30.
At Adelaide, when ten Indian batsmen got it all wrong on day one, their No 3 stood stoic, unmoved and composed. Kohli had spoken about the need to control the game before the Australian tour citing it as one area the Indians lacked in during the England series. “How to control the game is something we need to work on. We have to find a solution in tough situations rather than feeling that it would appear from somewhere,” Kohli had said.
If it was to appear from anywhere, it had to be from Pujara. He has walked in at crucial and tight situations this year on tough foreign pitches, and resurrected the Indian innings by batting out time. Yet, he is much less hailed than Kohli for the importance of his knocks have almost always been obscured by someone else.
This has mostly been the case this year when Pujara has played a massive role in each of India's wins. At Johannesburg, in the final Test of the South African series, on a spicy deck India opted to bat first and found KL Rahul back in the hut at the start of the fourth over. His partner, Murali Vijay, would soon follow him before the 9th over and as Virat Kohli looked to find his feet against the nagging Proteas seamers, Pujara at No 3 walked in, his mind fixated on weathering out the Proteas attack.
He occupied the crease for more than 58 overs, facing 179 balls and embracing the wicket for more than four hours. He didn't score a single run until the 54th delivery. Pujara eventually made a half-century, but in the context of what he had done, the runs barely mattered. As Ian Chappell wrote recently, at No 3 in Test cricket, you need “someone with the patience of a fly fisherman, a brick wall defence and the unselfish outlook that allows him to bury his ego in order to improve the chances of success for his fellow batsmen.”
Pujara bats hours, not runs. His scorecard should perhaps feature minutes, balls and then runs in that very order for what he does is better measured in terms of time rather than runs. Old-fashioned with more grit than defensive skills, Pujara isn't a natural batsman but he is a natural fighter. He has batted hours in nets to play those knocks in the middle. It is perhaps why his Test record overseas is on a rise this year despite the supreme bowling friendly conditions host nations have dished out for India.
“When you defend confidently you know you are in command, you are on top of the bowler, and he doesn't have a chance to get you out. You will ultimately score runs when he bowls a loose ball,” Pujara had said last year in an interview with The Cricket Monthly.
It's a mantra he sticks by but it isn't often acknowledged. In fact, he is so unassuming in India's Test line-up that the management had the audacity to go into Edgbaston for the first Test against England without Pujara, not realising they were denting the team's chances to start off the tour on a winning note themselves. The fact that this was the first match they were playing since Pujara's marathon innings at Johannesburg, a match that India won, which came as a solace to the aching heart of the Indian fans' and players alike, amid the pitch controversy, further confounds India’s selection in Edgbaston.
The No 3 in that game - KL Rahul - made 4 and 13 and lasted a total of 50 minutes and 26 balls. India promptly lost and Pujara was back in the side for Lord's when India lost by an innings. Pujara made a total of just 18 runs but batted for nearly two and a half hours. The 'intent' jibe came and kept on coming to him on a number of occasions, but Pujara went about his game like he does, unfazed.
"When I scored a fifty in South Africa in the third Test match (on a challenging wicket in Johannesburg earlier this year) … It was as satisfying as scoring a double hundred against any team. I took about 54 balls to get off the mark, and it was one of the toughest wickets I've ever played on,” Pujara said later in England during a county stint which many deemed a failure.
The building blocks for a special series in England was laid during the county season with Yorkshire, where he was nicknamed 'Steve' apparently because Cheteshwar was too big and complicated a name for the players to pronounce.
At Nottingham, in the third Test, Pujara spent four hours in the second innings at the crease and made a valiant 72 as Virat Kohli hit a ton and hogged headlines. India won the Test and Kohli was hailed but Pujara remained a forgotten hero.
When Southampton came, Pujara had already adapted better than any other Indian batsman to the conditions and it showed in a top-class hundred. He remained unbeaten on 132, facing 257 balls and batting 355 minutes as his mates fell to poor shots. India took a lead with their No 3 contributing to 48.35% of their first innings total. They lost eventually, and there was not any fault of Pujara, but yet again, the carefully compiled ton was given the due it deserved.
Pujara is not the today's definition of flamboyance on the cricket pitch. He has his own methods to do things between the 22 yards. If India needed one run to win from 50 overs with 10 wickets remaining and no fielders, Pujara would probably tap the ball to third man and take a single to lead them to a win. Assured and organised, his plan is simple - occupy the crease, adapt to the conditions and the runs would come by.
At Adelaide, he oozed class in a spectacular hundred on day one of the tour of Australia. He followed it up with a 71 in the second innings, playing out nearly eleven hours in the entire Test, and facing 450 deliveries. India has fond memories of Adelaide thanks to another fabulous No 3, 'The Wall' Rahul Dravid, whose double-ton in 2003 gave them a four-wicket win. 15 years later, Pujara nearly replicated what the former India captain did as India won again.
They faltered at Perth as did Pujara but the series is in the balance and as Melbourne and Sydney beckon, the focus light is once again on Virat Kohli who slammed a hundred in the second Test to wrestle the newspaper headlines from the No 3 batsman.
But Australia would know what Pujara's wicket means. When you wish to cut a tree, you cut the trunk, not the branches. But when you wish to destroy a tree forever, you dig out the root. Virat Kohli is the trunk of this Indian line-up. In Pujara, though, the visitors have a root, spread wide and deep into the mud, constantly supplying the tree with water and nutrients.
He is unshakeable, immovable and a relentless force, stronger than a pillar. To destroy the tree and not let it rise again, the hosts have to dig out the root which seems an arduous task given how strong it is.