Beneath the blocks and bruises of Cheteshwar Pujara
When the dust settles and when he goes back home, Cheteshwar will be silently ironing out one another flaw, that only he can find.
A little under a ton of overs to bat out to salvage a victory or a draw. A final day track where as a batsman you see ridges in your peripheral vision. An opposition who don't have the faintest of idea when it comes to what losing at this venue feels like. Two relentless bowling machines, A left arm quick renowned for his nasty spells, a veteran spinner who enjoys home conditions. An already bruised and battered finger. Almost 9 months of no form of cricket. A dismal 4th innings record for a player of his caliber.
If these aren't enough odds to contend with, Cheteshwar Pujara walks out very early in day 5 to a relatively new ball, with the task of forging a partnership with the young Shubman Gill. The horizon is nearly 95 overs and 7 hours away. His instructions - Just bat and bat and bat. It is the only way he has always known. And bat, he did.
Pujara looks at ease in the initial 70 odd balls. For Pujara, looking comfortable means leaving the ball on line, leaving it on length and dead-batting the ball with so much intent. The Aussies turn to plan C, they bang the ball in with every inch of their tall frames behind each ball. They pepper him with bouncers around the arm pit and the head; The cracks on the day 5 surface play their part. Some take off on a rapid ascent while others don't. Pujara continues to bat, with his body.
Pujara is being hit by these barrage of bouncers at a rate faster than his runs have come so far in this series. There is now one that hits his already bruised finger. He goes down on his back in pain and screams in agony, louder than he ever calls for a quick single. That is the most I have ever seen him expressing himself on a cricket field.
Surely, this is going to unsettle him a bit and it is just a matter of time before the pitched up delivery will expose his foot work. Pujara, gets up, fine tunes his grip, a routine that he does after every ball. A routine that we have watched 1000 times this series and a little more than that the last time around. With a little bit of a murmur to himself, he continues to watch those deliveries ever so closely . Pujara continues to bat through pain and bruises, with the feet moving as assuredly as they ever were.
As if everything else that is going on is not enough to unsettle him, a butterfly tests his patience. He has now stopped big Josh halfway through his run up and Josh is fuming. He responds with one that hits Pujara flesh on the helmet, his neck-protector venturing out a little farther than the ball from Pujara's non-existent blade. Pujara, continues to bat with his helmet.
Shubman Gill on the other end is having none of it. He is hooking, pulling and upper-cutting the ball at every opportunity. He is looking beautiful, the pitch is looking like a sleeping beauty.
Why doesn't Pujara pull and hook? Why doesn't he want to look elegant and make some runs? For those of you who have watched Pujara's 153 at the Wanderers, you know he has got the horizontal bat shots up his sleeve. If that isn't enough of an evidence, they were on display even at the SCG.
Behind Pujara's no-bat show is a cricketing brain which is doing calculations on the fly. It is busy showing Pujara's hands how risky it is to pull and hook on a surface where bounce isn't always consistent. Assimilating all this information, Che weights his options and decides to take the bat completely out of the equation. Instead, he chooses his body to defend. On occasions, he is bending down just enough so that the ball doesn't strike the elbow, but takes the fleshy biceps so that he can bat on. When he does ride the bounce, he does so taking one hand off the glove. Pujara knows he cannot be dismissed if the ball takes the gloves when they are off the bat. He knows with one hand on the bat, the ball will barely carry to the close-in fielders. Cheteshwar continues to bat, with one hand on the bat.
When Mitchell Starc comes on after lunch, the Saurashtra batsman cuts him above the slips, not before his brain has conducted a risk analysis. It has observed Starc looking a little exhausted, getting no shape back in from over the wicket, which means the left hand angle is going to take the ball away. The shot is clearly on and he swipes so hard that the ball comfortably sails over the cordon. Pujara continues to bat, a little more with the bat this time.
Nobody seems to understand what Pujara is doing with his pads to Lyon. He is padding balls outside off stump. The brains have made some neat calculations again. They have told his legs to pick and choose balls to kick away, considering the bounce and the turn. In spite of all the question marks about his technique against spin, he continues to bat, this time with his pads.
When Australia went through all their bowlers and rolled a final die with Marnus Labuschagne bowling some gentle leg spinners, here is a moment that for me captured how deep within Pujara, his methods are embedded. Marnus bowls a juicy full toss, Pujara with all the power takes a swipe but still ensures the ball hits the ground first.
The stroke makers seem to revel in Pujara's presence. It is not a mere coincidence that they relish batting with him. He is their insurance against a collapse. He continues to bat in his bubble, shutting out all the exemplary stroke play that Gill, Pant and even his skipper are dishing out from influencing him.
When finally the second new ball is taken and his nemesis, Pat Cummins nips one back, Pujara is trapped before the wicket. But, he has already batted over 200 balls. He has selflessly laid out a platform where the stroke makers can play their flamboyant strokes and score runs. He has taken enough steam out of 8 Australian legs. He has batted probably with broken fingers. He has scored probably his most significant 50 in his career. Pujara for his part will still be disappointed that it didn't need a 'ball of the series' to get him out.
It has always been the hard way for the 32 year old. His game is all about sacrifices. It is about going after every risk and cutting them down one by one. The biggest sacrifice of them all, has come in shape of this blocking masterclass at Gabba. There is so much to like about Pujara and his methods; So much to cherish about Pujara and his never ending desire to just bat and bat and bat, like nothing else really mattered. When the dust settles and when he goes back home, Cheteshwar will be silently ironing out one another flaw, that only he can find.