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Feature

Cheteshwar Pujara, a throwback and a one-off

It often feels like no one in the history of cricket leading up to Pujara has batted quite like Pujara

R Ashwin has 100 lbws in Test cricket, and he has had several times as many appeals turned down. Seldom, however, can he have appealed as loudly, or for as long, or as beseechingly in a Test match as he did when he hit Cheteshwar Pujara's front pad in the Delhi nets on Wednesday.
Bowling from around the wicket, Ashwin had drifted one across Pujara, whose response was to thrust his pad at the ball and offer no shot.
Ashwin appealed, paused, and appealed again. Sairaj Bahutule, the spin-bowling consultant at the National Cricket Academy and occasional umpire, gestured to suggest, so it seemed, that the ball hadn't straightened enough to hit the stumps.
Some two minutes later, another appeal split the air. This time it was Axar Patel, pleading with Bahutule to give Pujara out after he had stepped out of his crease and thrust his bat and pad, so close to each other that they were almost one entity, at the ball.
Bahutule shook his head. Not out.
Those two balls contained so much of the essence of Pujara, and what Ashwin - in an appreciation he penned ahead of his colleague's 100th Test match - refers to as his greatness "at playing percentages against spin".
Nathan Lyon, who has bowled more balls to Pujara than anyone else in Test cricket, would testify to that. In series after series against Australia, Pujara has used his feet to Lyon, and on numerous occasions when he has been beaten in the air, thrust his pad at the ball with bat tucked by its side or often just behind it.
Each time Lyon has appealed in his theatrical manner, sinking to his knees with arms spread wide, and almost every time the verdict has been not out. Pujara has almost always been far enough out of his crease to put doubt in the umpire's mind, while almost always ensuring that his pad is outside the line of off stump, and while almost always giving the impression that he has made a genuine effort to play the ball with his bat.
Lyon has bowled 1158 balls to Pujara in Test cricket, and roared out what has seemed like hundreds of lbw appeals. He has dismissed Pujara ten times, but lbw only once.
Playing the percentages. Few have done it better, or more adroitly, or more watchably.
For a batter who often scores runs at a glacial pace, and for one whose style isn't conventionally attractive, Pujara has somehow always been riveting to watch. It's perhaps because his methods are so different to those of his contemporaries.
Pujara is a throwback in some respects. In an almost entirely bat-up era, his stance is resolutely bat-down, even against pace. At a time when nearly every other batter defends against spin with bat in front of pad, he defends with bat next to pad. In the age of DRS, he's often happy to trust his judgment and offer his pad to offspinners if he thinks the ball isn't going to hit the stumps. And he uses his feet not just to attack but defend too.
But he isn't just a throwback. In some ways, he is a proper one-off, a batter with no stylistic forebearers, beating a classical rhythm with an autodidact's technique. It often feels like no one in the history of cricket leading up to Pujara has batted quite like Pujara, with that low grip, top hand twisted so far around the handle that the bowler can almost see the back of his glove.
That grip allows him to defend later and closer to his body than pretty much anyone in world cricket, and it has given him a repertoire of strokes all his own: a drive through mid-off that's a flick by strict definition; a twirling, elaborate leg-side flick that ends with the toe of his bat pointing to square leg; a rasping square-cut, often played with both feet off the ground, that he can play even when he doesn't have a lot of width to work with; and a swivelling, seemingly off-balance hook that makes you feel you're watching footage from a 1940s newsreel.
Over his 99 Tests, he has rationed his shots judiciously, to be brought out when the bowling and conditions permit their use. He will go months without pulling or hooking fast bowlers, and out of nowhere play the shot four times in a session. The area behind the wicket on the off side is a heavy scoring zone for him, usually, but on two-paced pitches he will go hours without opening his bat face to play in that direction.
Over all the innings he has played over all these years, Pujara's methods have grown familiar not just to viewers mesmerised by his methods but to his opponents as well.
Fast bowlers now routinely put an extra fielder on the leg side - often at leg gully - and attack Pujara's stumps. Spinners bowl to him with a straight short midwicket, narrowing the gap between that fielder and mid-on, a gap Pujara loves to target with his dancing on-drive. Lyon stations a silly point most times when Pujara comes to the crease now, hoping to get him caught pad-bat, or at least to dissuade his prancing bat-pad thrusts with the risk of run-out now magnified.
Where other batters have changed their game in dramatic ways to counter these plans, Pujara has trusted stubbornly in the soundness of his methods. Barring small adjustments every batter makes from innings to innings, like changing their guard by a few inches or opening up their stance, Pujara simply bats like Pujara.
It's why you feel a shock of familiarity when you watch highlights of his old innings. The Virat Kohli of 2012 looked like an entirely different person and batted in an entirely different way to the Virat Kohli of 2023. Watch this video, and the Pujara of 2012 is, well, just Pujara - yes, he ramped short balls over the slip cordon even then.
Without that link, you would have needed to search long and hard on the official BCCI site to find any footage of what remains one of Pujara's greatest hundreds, a first-innings 135 on a Wankhede Stadium track with generous turn and bounce against the only bowling attack that's won a Test series in India since 2004. The video is a short and unsatisfying one, containing mostly boundaries against England's fast bowlers, and nothing of his brilliant defence against their spinners.
That it's a struggle to find even that is perhaps the biggest misfortune of Pujara's career, and the careers of his long-time team-mates, who have combined to pull off some of India's greatest triumphs overseas while turning them near-invincible at home. The away highlights of their careers are easier to find than the home highlights, adding to the feeling that India's home successes are taken for granted, and that the contributions of their bowlers and batters to these successes are hugely underappreciated.
It wasn't always so. Sachin Tendulkar's career was defined as much by the 136 as the 114, and Rahul Dravid's as much by the 180 as the 148, to the extent that if you're an Indian fan of a certain generation, the scores are enough to know what's being referred to. You can find footage, extended footage in some cases, of all these innings.
Not so with Pujara. At a time when it should be easier than ever for cricket fans to summon up their favourite spells and innings, the recent past of India's home Tests has become a no-go zone.
But fans of Pujara, though not as vocal or numerous as fans of Kohli or Rohit Sharma, watch their man closely, almost transfixed by his one-of-a-kind methods. Their memories are a storehouse of Pujara moments, and they are hoping there is plenty more to add, from his 100th Test and beyond.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo