Pujara dance leaves England in the dark
Cheteshwar Pujara has now spent all but 30.1 overs of this series on the field. Of that he has been at the wicket for 235.2 overs - close to 15 hours - without getting dismissed, for 361 runs. England could well be looking for Lord Relator to write a new Calypso for him.
R Ashwin, who has played a lot of domestic cricket against Pujara and who added an unbeaten 97 with him today, was later asked to reveal the secret of how to get Pujara out. Ashwin wasn't about to. All he said was "lbw".
In this form, though, forget about getting Pujara lbw. Looking at the number of times he has left the crease to play the spinners, Pujara has hardly locked himself up in order to stay in the house. The spinners will need to pin him down first. This is what stood out first about Michael Clarke and his batting against spin. Clarke had grown up batting that way in Sydney, and he did the same on debut in Bangalore.
Incidentally, Pujara too made his debut at the same ground, with Clarke in opposition. And Pujara had every reason to mistrust that pitch, and his own fate. After years of hard work, when his chance finally arrived, it took only three balls for a grubber to hit the stumps boot high. In the second innings, though, promoted to No. 3, he charged down to the first ball of spin he faced in Test cricket. Off the first six balls of spin he faced in his career, he took 10 runs by jumping out of the crease and without lofting the ball at all. He went on to help India complete a tricky chase successfully.
Three hundreds later, we have seen enough of Pujara to know that if he is in form, he will not let spinners bowl to a rhythm they want to bowl to. He will keep leaving the safe confines of the crease to get to the pitch of the ball. Not to loft the ball, but to drive it along the ground or push it around or even defend it. It is easy to say that to get to the pitch of the ball is the best way to play spin, but that's all it is. Easy to say.
To do it 'Pujara style' takes not only skill, but also clarity of thought, courage and confidence in your own game. It's almost like jumping off a plane with the tug on the parachute bag in a new location every time. You jump out of the crease just as the ball is about to leave the bowler's hand. A second earlier, and the bowler can adjust the delivery. A second too late, and you can be too late, thus struggling to reach the pitch of the ball. Even if you time the move to perfection, you leave yourself open to all sorts of possibilities, with just a four-inch-wide piece of wood and your own front leg to counter them. The ball can be shorter than you expect, it can be wider, and it can behave funny after pitching.
Pujara is not the first batsman to do it successfully and as regularly as he does, nor is stepping out the only trick that he employs. Today, he swayed out of the line of the bouncers beautifully, just the thing to do in the subcontinent where the ball can stay low and hit you when trying to duck. He judged the shorter length from spinners to perfection, and went back and punched on either side of the pitch.
"The amount of times he trusted his defence and kept on defending was brilliant," Ashwin said of Pujara's effort. "It eased the nerves as I went into bat. He was defending beautifully."
To have scored 361 runs without getting dismissed, over three innings, you have to be doing many things right, but it is Pujara's leaving of the crease that is exhilarating to watch. Especially on a pitch with enough turn and bounce to make the best of them fumble and grope in darkness. What makes it even more special is that he kept doing it even with wickets falling at the other end. And he does it in a controlled manner: despite that movement the head remains stable and on the ball, he is never looking for any wild shots. Moreover, it is hard to remember any instances of his panicking or coming close to missing the ball with that safe box behind him.
Ashwin said Pujara doesn't deal in small hundreds. If he does go on to turn this too into a big one, look at those feet more closely.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo