Cheteshwar Pujara: A personification of grit in adversity

Cheteshwar Pujara was an unsung hero for India throughout the famous series win against Australia.

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Cheteshwar Pujara during Day 5 of the final Test

India’s historic win at the Gabba will be remembered far and wide for the grit and determination the players showed amidst raging adversity and hostility in Australia. Picture this: India had lost the first Test after getting bowled out for 36 in the second innings. Their skipper Virat Kohli travelled back to India. Reporters, analysts, commentators, cricketers and fans wrote India off. They were very clear in their stance that a 4-0 was on the cards. The situation only worsened as India were left with an injury list that only kept getting longer by the day. But, India were unfazed. Undaunted.

A fantastic win in Melbourne fashioned by stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane followed. But, nobody still had the confidence that India could go on to win the series. Sydney awaited amidst noise about breaking of quarantine protocols and the like. India were down and out when Day 5 began. But again, ‘grit’. Grit came to the fore. A rearguard of all rearguards for as much as 131 overs came about. Confidence was back but the injuries were piling up. India had to go to Brisbane with a team consisting of players who had never played at such a stage. And then the conquering of the Gabba fortress happened. Against all odds. ‘Grit’ is the word.

The representation of India’s grit

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Cheteshwar Pujara plays a shot during the third Test in Sydney

India’s No. 3, the one who was famously touted to be the successor of Rahul Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara had not been in the best of form coming into the series against Australia. His last century had come in the previous Border-Gavaskar trophy where he top scored while facing more than 1200 balls throughout the series and helped his side win the trophy. Yes, that series win was historic but it came about in a more facile manner. This was different. Special rather.

Pujara was under scrutiny when the tour began. In a tour match against Australia A, he had been uncharacteristically castled by a Michael Neser delivery for a duck in the second innings. The spotlight was on him. He had to be the hero in the absence of Virat Kohli. He was the hero India needed. Whether he was the one India deserved or not is a different question altogether considering the immense pressure he was subjected to, throughout the series.

The archetypal Test purists’ delight

Cheteshwar Pujara (Credit - Cricket Australia)
A dejected Cheteshwar Pujara after losing his wicket

Cheteshwar Pujara is not a joy to watch for those accustomed to the hustle and bustle of T20 cricket. Pujara’s batting is like art of yore. It is a Test purist who finds delight in his batting. It is ‘grind’ that he exemplifies. For Pujara, it is about hanging in there. Putting a price on his wicket. Seeing off the new ball when he comes in early. Making the bowlers tire. Releasing pressure off his partners. Scoring valuable runs. He does these to perfection. ‘Grit’ is key.

In the very first Test, he got a 40 and was going well. His strike-rate was, as is conventional, below 30. But he was set, before an inside-edge off Nathan Lyon brought an end to his stay. The second innings was well and truly a disaster for India and it is best not spoken about. But, there is an important takeaway from the debacle as well – Pujara got a peach of a delivery from Pat Cummins. His ball was perhaps, the most unplayable one an Indian batsman received that day. If not, we might as well have seen grit.

The second Test was not a good one for Pujara as he fell cheaply in both innings. It was Cummins who had his number, having him poke at deliveries to find the edge. But the fact of the matter is, the situation did not demand the ‘Pujara’ grit as India eased to a win.

The approach is what makes Pujara

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Ice and Fire – Pujara celebrates his fifty with Rishabh Pant

After the low-key showings in the first two Tests came the Sydney rearguard. A stunning effort. But, it wasn’t merely a rearguard. It was front-guard as well from none other than Pujara. Initially, in the first innings, it was Pujara at his most ‘Pujara’-est. A delightfully patient knock that got him his slowest fifty ever. He had weathered 176 deliveries from the famed Aussie attack and top scored. But, criticism followed. “Too slow”, “no intent”, “putting pressure on the other batters”…

But what the critics fail to understand is that, this IS the Pujara approach. One that doesn’t care about run-rate or intent. It is all about frustrating the bowlers. It is about staying at the crease for as long as possible. Yes, it might fail at times. But this approach is what makes Pujara. This is Cheteshwar Pujara. You can not ask a classical musician to sing hip-hop. He might be able to, yes. But you shouldn’t expect him to.

The very same critics were left in awe as the same Pujara orchestrated a spectacular Day 5 escape to draw the Test. Ravi Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari got the credit. But Pujara deserved as much as anybody. For facing 381 balls in the Test. Gritty.

The breaching of the Gabbatoir with blow after blow

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Cheteshwar Pujara receives treatment on Day 5 of the fourth Test

The breaching of the Gabba fortress will be etched in cricket folklore and might as well go down as India’s greatest overseas triumph ever. Rishabh Pant was the hero, the man of the hour and rightly so. But Pujara’s contributions were as important. An inability to convert a start in the first innings notwithstanding, the right-hander walked in to bat in the morning on Day 5 with the score at 18/1. India needed 310 more. A win seemed out of reach. It was all about survival.

Che Pu was a rock in the middle. An immovable one at that. He received a flurry of short-pitched deliveries. He ducked, defended, left, got hit. Not once. Not twice. He received three blows to his head alone and innumerable ones to his body, hand, ribs, you name it. He was hurt, in pain, under pressure. Down. Not out.

A scintillating partnership followed, with Shubman Gill. Again, a fire and ice partnership that resembled the Pant-Pujara partnership in Sydney. Gill was the aggressor. Pujara was the catalyst. The same followed after Gill’s dismissal – with Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant. Another fifty. This was the slowest of the lot. He had scored his 3 slowest fifties in the same series and in crucial situations as well. Talk about ‘grit’.

Pujara’s 56 might not look great on paper alongside a 91 and 89*. But a Test purist sees the 211 balls that he faced. The storm that he weathered. The 1000+ deliveries that he faced. The blows that he withstood. The frustration that he caused the Aussies. The smiles that he put on the purist’s face. The grit that he showed.

Also Read: India vs Australia: Does Cheteshwar Pujara’s slow ‘approach’ deserve the criticism it’s getting?

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