Cheteshwar Pujara belongs to a rare breed of cricketers. He is one of the few out-and-out Test cricket specialists in international cricket. There are others who play only Test cricket for their national teams, but still play domestic T20 leagues. Pujara, on the other hand, is an elite international cricketer without an IPL contract. He eats, sleeps, breathes Test cricket.
In the past two years, he has been the mainstay of India’s Test batting line-up. It’s no wonder then that as the focus of the national team shifts from ODIs and T20s to Test cricket, Pujara finds himself under the spotlight.
Over the last couple of seasons, Pujara has also made a habit of grabbing the spotlight even when he is not on national duty. Earlier this year, Pujara broke the record for most runs in an Indian first-class season by amassing a mammoth 1,611 runs. He continued his merry ways against Australia when his patient 92 helped India seize the initiative back from the tourists in a hard-fought Test series. His 202 off 525 balls at Ranchi also broke the record for most balls faced in a Test inning by an Indian. Against Sri Lanka, he seemed impossible to dislodge and his four innings against the islanders yielded two hundreds.
Pujara hit a lean patch after the Sri Lanka series when he couldn’t score a fifty in his seven outings to the middle during the English county season. Things didn’t improve even after coming back home and a fifty still eluded Pujara after the first two games of the Ranji season. With another Test series beckoning and Sri Lankans hitting some form after a series win against Pakistan, Team India would have been desperate to see Pujara among the runs.
Pujara answered the call in emphatic fashion by scoring a double hundred against Jharkhand that took him past Vijay Merchant's tally of 11 first-class double hundreds. Records are meant to be broken as they say, but if Merchant, the founder of the Bombay school of batsmanship himself had to pick a modern player whom he considers worthy of breaking his record, then he would have named Pujara. Merchant laid emphasis on the value of technique, patience and an overall conservative approach to building Test innings, the virtues that are now the cornerstone of Pujara’s batting.
Pujara followed up that double hundred with another daddy hundred against Gujarat. He missed a chance to score successive double hundreds as he got out for 182. The Sri Lankan side was warned by their coach against getting infatuated by the Indian team, but if they read Ranji Trophy scores in the morning newspapers, it will be hard not to feel infatuated, and somewhat threatened, by the form of their tormenter-in-chief from a few months ago.
In his interaction with the media, Pujara made his state of mind clear. “Everything looks good. I feel good when I start scoring big runs. So, it is a perfect start before I head into the Sri Lankan series.”
Nothing puts Pujara in a better mood than spending time in the middle and scoring big runs. He feeds off the confidence he gets from demoralising bowlers with his unforgiving dedication to occupying the crease.
Even as Pujara is working on getting into the best shape to pile on the runs against Sri Lanka, he has one eye on the upcoming tour to South Africa, a place where he has tasted success before. His 153 at Johannesburg followed by a 70 at Durban during the 2013 tour would give him the confidence as Team India will be hoping to script its first ever series win in South Africa. Despite a 50+ Test average, Pujara has his detractors who consider him a home track bully. The series against South Africa will give him a great chance to wipe off that tag.
2017 has already been Pujara’s most productive year in Test cricket. He has scored 851 runs this year at an average of 70.91. Having already ticked off a number of statistical milestones this year, Pujara will be keen on finishing the year with a tally of 1000 Test runs in a year for the first time in his career. If he reaches the landmark, Pujara will join the elite company of 11 Indian cricketers to achieve the feat of 1000 runs in a calendar year before him.