The delight of keeping it pure and simple
We have read numerous adjectives over the years describing the various batsmen who made up India's great Test line-up of recent vintage. Over time, with almost every adjective, you could tell the batsmen it was being used for. Think marauder, perfectionist, immaculate, stylist: think Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman. In the coming years, if Cheteshwar Pujara keeps doing what he did today - and he probably will - we'll read one more: batsman. Nothing more, just batsman. Because Pujara just bats, no frills attached, the way a woodcutter cuts wood, the way a painter paints, the way any worker works.
Not for a delivery is he unattractive, but he is not attractive either. Not for a delivery does he seem to be making too much of an effort, but he is not effortless either. Not for a delivery does he seem to be taking too much pressure, but he is not unbothered either. He just does his job like it is to be done.
Like he did today, at No. 3 against New Zealand. He came in when India had got a start, nothing more, with Virender Sehwag slamming fours. As was required at the stage, Pujara let Sehwag do his thing while he lasted. When Sehwag fell, he took his time to rebuild in a quiet partnership with Tendulkar, but with the latter in defensive mode, Pujara outscored his senior partner.
From 125 for 3, he and Virat Kohli doubled the score, matching each other stroke for stroke and giving the Hyderabad crowd more than a glimpse into India's Test batting future. And yes, Pujara comfortably outscored Kohli in the partnership, in terms of runs and strike-rate. As he said later, it is just his image that he is defensive.
When Kohli and Suresh Raina fell in quick succession, Pujara had more rebuilding to do, along with MS Dhoni, with the second new ball not far away. Now Dhoni is one of the last batsmen who will be outscored in partnerships; Pujara let his captain dominate their stand. In other words, to sum up his entire innings in one line, Pujara did just what was required throughout the day.
He was playing his first Test in over a year-and-a-half, injury and recovery having eaten up much of his time. He was up initially against New Zealand's best bowler of the day, Trent Boult. There was a short leg, short midwicket, shortish backward square leg, and fine leg. New Zealand were clear where they were going to target the young batsman. Pujara knew as well. Right back he went, and defended the short deliveries. He didn't flinch, he didn't back away, he didn't hop around, he didn't look to swing his way out of pressure. He just defended calmly and firmly.
Off his 46th delivery, he decided enough was enough, and clubbed a short Chris Martin delivery to deep square leg for four. It was not a pull, it was not a hook, it was somewhere in between. But it was whole-hearted. As were all his strokes. Again, unlike the image he has.
His cuts and punches stood out. Again, they were whole-hearted. Pujara was in the air at times as he ended these shots. New Zealand kept giving him width, and he kept thumping them. Of course, there were orthodox cover drives and steers, but those we have been told to expect from Pujara.
He showed awareness in targeting the part-time offspinner Kane Williamson for three boundaries to race to 95. For two deliveries against James Franklin, only two, he revealed to the world that he was nervous about being in the 90s for the first time in international cricket. He mishit a forcing push to Franklin off one that stayed low, and extravagantly flicked the next one to midwicket.
Forcing. Extravagant. Both frills. The pure batsman re-emerged immediately. Two of the remaining four balls in the over were left alone, two were defended. As they needed to be. Pujara said later he was mentally strong enough to handle those moments.
The hundred was brought up in due course, the celebration had some emotion, but what is noteworthy is that after reaching the landmark, Pujara faced 57 more deliveries till stumps, which included a let-off by the umpire when he was on 117.
He said he had wanted to make a debut Test hundred, had missed out [he made 72] and was satisfied to get his maiden century, which he dedicated to his father. "He has been working really hard on me ever since my childhood. He went through some tough time in his life - he had a bypass surgery - and he's still coaching me. I'm very thankful to him and would like to dedicate this to both my parents.
"The first target [tomorrow] is to put up 400 on the board and then individually, if I can score a double-hundred, it will be great," Pujara said. He is on 119, and already thinking about getting a double. Somehow, when he said it, it didn't sound like a boast. It didn't sound fake as well.
Have India found their new No. 3 in place of the colossus who played 164 Tests? They could have. But for the moment, India have a young batsman who bats, pure and simple. Savour him, for he is a rarity.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo