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Headingley showed Cheteshwar Pujara is back to focusing on what's important

He wasn't worrying about crease occupation during his 91 in the third Test

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
The worst feeling a cricketer ever goes through in his career is when he gets dropped from the side. The higher the standard, the more heartbreaking the disappointment.
So what happens when you get dropped?
You go back to the grind, and while you're constantly trying to evolve as a cricketer, you start focusing on the strengths that got you this far.
It happened with me too. When I was dropped from the Indian team in 2004, I went back to playing domestic cricket for Delhi with only one motive - to get back into the national side as soon as possible. Of course, that can't be achieved without scoring runs, and the most efficient formula I knew was to trust my defence and patience.
It was pretty straightforward - stay at the crease for many hours and lots of runs would be the obvious outcome. For the next two seasons, I stayed put in the middle for countless hours and played thousands of balls, but only scored a handful of fifties. Big scores eluded me.
Not once did it cross my mind to change tack, for I was convinced that I was doing the right thing. After all, I was trusting my two best allies in the hardest times.
Only after spending a couple of years in the wilderness and, more importantly, only after I stopped obsessing about my comeback did I realise that batting was only about scoring runs.
While a solid defence and tons of patience helped, I had to start thinking about getting those runs. If my focus was on eliminating risks, I wasn't allowing my body to get in the right positions to score as often as my skill set enabled me to. Two of my strengths had put shackles on my game. While they didn't exactly become weaknesses, they definitely didn't allow me to explore other facets of my game.
Did this happen to Cheteshwar Pujara too?
There has been a lot of talk of his lack of hundreds - in 36 innings since August 2019 - and, at times, his lack of form. But even when Pujara didn't score big runs, he played some stellar knocks under tremendous pressure. His contributions this year in Sydney, in the second innings in Brisbane, and at Lord's are still fresh in our memories. If it wasn't for him, India wouldn't have drawn the Sydney game and might have ended losing at Lord's and in Brisbane.
During these two years, Pujara has played thousands of balls and spent countless hours in the middle. But he hasn't moved as swiftly as he would have liked. He got more than a few magic balls that dismissed him after his long vigils too. There were many opinions - I had one too - about how he's choking the bat and why the downswing from the short backlift doesn't allow him to force the issue; and about how his feet aren't moving as much as they should, which is why he's getting stuck at the crease.
There was merit in all those opinions, but his knock in Leeds has opened up another thread. Was it all technical or was it that Pujara's trusted friends - defence and patience - weren't allowing him to realise his potential? There was pressure on him. There was talk of him getting benched after the third Test if he didn't fire. If the worst feeling of a cricketer's life is getting dropped, the second worst is fearing of the impending axe.
Did Pujara go through these worries? We don't know. But the Pujara who came out to bat in the second innings at Headingley was no longer only placing his faith in his defence and patience but trusting his instincts to react to the incoming delivery. His feet moved well. Even when his hands choked the bat, it didn't prevent him from driving, punching or pulling. Of course, there were some easy runs available off his legs, but that's the flip side of getting magic balls. Pujara could have gone back to his trusted formula one more time, but he didn't, and everything else fell into place quite nicely till he shouldered arms to an incoming delivery on the fourth morning.
This is how Pujara has always played, barring the last couple of years. This innings might be the watershed event of his career in that he may no longer think only about occupying the crease but instead focus on scoring runs and letting the rest just follow. His defence and patience will still be friends but they might no longer be his BFFs.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash