A boy with a clear mind and crisp shots
An innocent little moment featuring Cheteshwar Pujara stood out more than the cover drives he unleashed against Australia on a fifth-day pitch.
He had played beautifully against the fast bowlers and the lone spinner to reach a quick 20 when the giant screen at the Chinnaswamy Stadium showed a highlights package during an over break. Pujara indulged. He made the others wait for four or five seconds as he watched how he looked, smashing Test bowlers around in a tricky chase. He saw he looked immaculate. It was the kind of moment most of us go through. Journalists like to see how their names look in the byline font. Actors like to see how they look once the editing is done.
They are also very personal moments. Thanks to modern technology, though, Pujara lived that personal moment live, unedited. At that point we were suddenly reminded he was just a 22-year-old boy. Never mind that the boy was making his debut. Never mind that a nasty grubber had ended his first innings three balls into the effort. Never mind that the boy had come in to bat at No. 3, in place of Rahul Dravid, when India lost Virender Sehwag early in the chase of 207. Never mind that the boy was fast ending the contest. Never mind that he knew he would have to vacate the place when VVS Laxman returns.
Never mind that the crowd unwittingly let Pujara know whose place he was taking. Sehwag had barely walked off when huge cheers started in anticipation of Dravid, the home boy. Pujara was as much a surprise to the Bangaloreans as to the Australians. If you were a debutant walking out then, you couldn't have not felt the pressure.
It was a great move, though. It gave the debutant an opportunity to show what he was made of, before being left out for who knows how long. It was surely a surprise to the opposition, who didn't know how he would react to a tight chase in Test cricket. It separated the youngsters, Pujara and Suresh Raina, and kept Dravid back in case there was a collapse.
It helped that Pujara had been told he would be batting No. 3 before the day's play began.
"He is kind of a stroke-player," MS Dhoni said. "He will play his shots if you bowl in his area. I thought the Australians would look to get him out quickly and attack him more, which is what happened. That gave Pujara the opportunity to score in boundaries." Dhoni said Pujara was up for it when told of the plan to promote him. He saw it as an opportunity to play a defining innings on debut.
The situation, though, called for more than just a boy. Or perhaps it helped that he was just a boy, with a clear mind and crisp shots. Failure was perhaps not contemplated. The scoring opportunities, as Dhoni said, arrived in due time. The third ball Pujara faced, he drove Mitchell Johnson through the covers. The grubber wasn't going to get him either. He punched it, from Ben Hilfenhaus, for four.
Pujara reserved his best for Nathan Hauritz. He came down the track to the first ball of spin he faced in Test cricket and drove it wide of long-on for two. He danced down again, driving Hauritz wide of mid-off. And then again, going through extra cover. It was the dance of the clear mind, the dance of the man who would soon see on the big screen that he belonged.
At 26 off 22, it was as if he was batting at the Madhavrao Scindia Stadium in Rajkot, in a West Zone Ranji one-dayer. Except he was setting up India's tenth-highest successful chase in Tests, at a venue where India hadn't won for 15 years.
During the lunch break Australia recovered a bit, and cut out the drive balls. By then, though, Pujara could do what he has done best in first-class cricket: play solid, risk-free cricket. He has also spent the last two or three years looking at other, less prolific, run-makers leapfrog him, and has become more positive in his approach, scoring at a higher pace - if that is what was needed to make it.
That showed in how Pujara played almost all his shots with ease, except that the cut wasn't as furious as those of India's regular No. 3. Johnson tried the short stuff, but Pujara pulled, and he kept those pulls down too. With every passing over he grew surer. He was a youngster realising the possibilities of Test cricket as he went along. He was enjoying it. He tackled Peter George's accuracy well, played Hilfenhaus' swing with the middle of the bat, and punished Johnson. He saw Hauritz, and said "Runs", scoring 25 off 19 balls from the offspinner.
It was Hauritz who ended Pujara's dream innings with his best ball of the tour, dipping and then going straight on, beating Pujara's outside edge. Disappointed, Pujara walked back, realising perhaps how close he had been to a debut century in the fourth innings of a match. He would have become only the seventh man to have scored one. Then he saw and heard the warm crowd reception, who had earlier cheered thinking he was Dravid. He raised his bat to them. They would have been just as pleased had Dravid played that innings from No. 3.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo