Once I get into my rhythm, no one can stop me - Pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara was well set and batting in the 80s with less than half an hour to go for stumps. There was little that hinted at a major deviation from how he had played up to that point. He had left many balls outside off stump, twitched his wrists at anything that slanted towards the leg stump and cut well. Everything pointed to a cautious final stretch with Saurashtra already five wickets down. Surely he, of all people, wouldn't attempt something rash?
Pujara, though, saw an opportunity within the bandwidth of risk-free batting; Assam's seam bowlers were a tired lot and their short-pitched deliveries were far less potent with an older, softer ball. There were runs for the taking, and Pallavkumar Das was identified as one of the targets. First up was a short ball that sat up wide outside off and out came a truculent square cut, replete with bottom-handed fury, which replaced its mellower variant that was in play for the most part.
It was followed by a late cut that wasn't as delicate as it was well disguised; he shaped for the cut but held the trigger and as the ball passed him maneuvered it well wide off first slip. He topped things up with a nifty clip off his pads for four. Only a few overs ago had he ferociously pulled left-arm spinner J Syed Mohammad for six over midwicket. Pujara, who brought up his first century this Ranji Trophy season, later said his experience and understanding of his game helped him switch plans with ease.
"Once I assess the situation, once I know what I have to do then I have my game plans," he said. "The ball got old, we had lost five wickets, I thought I should accelerate because the bowler's lengths weren't very good as well. That is experience. What you do in that situation [comes with] your experience."
While Pujara left a lot of balls in his innings, he said it wasn't a predetermined tactic to grind the opponents. "I just thought I will watch the ball and never restricted my shots," he explained. "They bowled in a line where I didn't want to go for it, and it helped me. Their line was very outside off and was short. And I was happy leaving the ball."
Pujara admitted to learning the importance of the 'one ball at a time' maxim by batting on difficult surfaces. "When the ball is seaming or turning you can only focus on the next ball. When you start focusing on how much the wicket is seaming or turning then you can't do what you should be doing," he said. "I didn't even know when I was close to 50 or 100 but I wasn't even looking at the scoreboard. I was thinking about which bowler was trying to get me out in which way, who was trying to swing it well."
There was also the missed opportunity in the quarterfinal against Vidarbha - he had got out for 47 - that was running at the back of his mind. He suggested that it made him more determined to cut down errors. "When you play on difficult wickets it doesn't matter whether you have played 100 or 50 international matches: if you make a minor mistake you are out," he said. "What I had in my mind was the last match I was batting so well I thought I am off for a double hundred or 150 but one ball you make a mistake and you are out. So my main thinking was to focus on the next ball, and once I get my rhythm then no one can stop me."
Pujara said he didn't have the habit of 'switching off and on' and that in fact he tried to remain clued in for as long as he could. Wasn't this a particularly draining approach? "If you are trying to focus so much then you drain yourself but I enjoy being there in the field," he said. "Watching the ball is natural so the mind is always [switched] on. I have had fairly good concentration levels right from the start, and I try to keep that going. It's about knowing what is happening on the wicket and what the bowlers are doing and what I need to do [to counter them]."
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo