Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
BBL 2023 (1)
SA v IND [ A ] (1)
Hazare Trophy (4)
Asia Cup [U19] (2)
SA v IND (1)
ZIM v IRE (1)
IND v ENG (W) (1)
In the 26th over of the day's play, Cheteshwar Pujara played a lovely straight drive. It should have gone for a four between the stumps at the non-striker's end and his batting partner M Vijay. Except that Vijay almost had his back to the action and didn't make the slightest of efforts to get his bat out of the way. The ball knocked the bat out of Vijay's hand, and created a misunderstanding as Pujara wanted a single off the ricochet, but Vijay was still processing what had just happened.
It was quite reminiscent of India's first Test with modern DRS. Pujara was given out lbw to a legbreak that was hitting leg and middle and thus ought to have pitched outside leg. Except that when you are batting and given out, you look at cues from your partner so as to not look selfish with reviews. In this case, Vijay again had his back to the action by the time Pujara looked up.
They are both slow runners who can often be caught ball-watching. In Hyderabad on Thursday Vijay took a few steps for a single, Pujara charged off, looking at the ball and not his partner. Then both made off for the same crease. Vijay, who now knew he was to be beaten to the crease at the striker's end, tried to complete the run. They were lucky this didn't result in a run-out.
In Indore, Pujara turned his back on Vijay when the call should have been his for a single into the covers. They are lucky they have had only one run-out batting together. If you didn't know better, you would think they are a dysfunctional pair. Yet they are the most prolific second-wicket partnership in the world and fourth-best overall since October 2010, when Pujara debuted.
Even when the Vijay-Pujara combine is not putting up the big numbers, they make significant small contributions. They had a big part to play in Virat Kohli's success in Australia in 2014-15 when he hardly ever had to face the new ball. This was months after Kohli's horror tour of England. In India's win at Lord's, they batted together for close to 20 overs in the first innings and added 78 in the second. When India came close to winning in Johannesburg, their partnership lasted 26.2-overs. When England racked up 537 in the first of five Tests this season, these two added 209 to calm India's nerves.
No No. 4 batsman in the world has been walking out to face an older ball than India's since Rahul Dravid retired and Pujara moved to No. 3. On an average India have been losing their second wicket at the end of the 26th over. Over the same period only Australia's No. 4 has walked in with more runs on the board than India's. On an average India have been losing their second wicket at the score of 87.5.
More than anything else, the sight of Vijay and Pujara batting well together in a partnership is the sign that the India Test team is doing well. The irritants - Vijay switching off at the non-striker's end and both ball-watching when running - are offshoots of what are integral parts of their game. They are old-fashioned Test batsmen. They build their innings through a lot of leaves and a lot of defensive shots when it is the most difficult time to bat. They need to switch off between balls otherwise they will exhaust themselves in no time.
They play very little of the formats where you are expected to just watch your partner and put your head down and run like hell. They have two different games - Vijay stylish, Pujara hard-working - but this is one of the big similarities. They get to play international cricket in only one format, and they are under extra pressure when they play Tests, especially given the amount of batting talent in India. They were both dropped for flashier batsmen during the West Indies tour.
Vijay only looks at the positives of playing only one format. "As I am playing one format of the game at the moment, I have got a decent idea about it and the hang of it," Vijay said. "I want to give as many consistent starts as possible, and be ready for my opportunity in other two formats as well."
Their circumstance might be similar, but as people, Vijay and Pujara are as different as their games. "We are totally different characters in the dressing room because we don't think the same way," Vijay said. "But once we go in the middle, we enjoy the company and enjoy each other's success. He's been a fantastic role model for all the youngsters in India. Hopefully he can continue doing the great work. It is a great honour to move along with him and pick his brains."
Vijay said batting with Pujara is a comfort zone for him. That Pujara's solid batting means he can relax and play his own game. In scarcely believable form he might be, but Kohli must be feeling similarly about this partnership right now.