The start of an era
Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman had said goodbye, and Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement appeared close. Indian fans had been left to wonder and reflect on what had ended, and what was next. Who was to be the next master, the very special one, the next wall?
Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma were widely predicted to be the future of Indian batting. Ajinkya Rahane had started to give glimpses of his class.
However, a gritty right-handed batsman with tons of runs in first-class cricket, Cheteshwar Pujara had been presented a recall to take the number three slot in the first Test of the 2012 home series against New Zealand – the first after Dravid’s retirement.
As the cliché goes… the rest is history. Pujara cashed in, striking a marvellous 159 at Hyderabad to announce his second homecoming.
Also read: 5 life lessons from Cheteshwar Pujara
Pujara’s first showing
Pujara had made his debut 2 years before that game in Hyderabad. The Indian middle-order hadn't been easy to break in for years. The foursome of Dravid, Sachin, Laxman and Ganguly kept playing and delivering ruthlessly.
Then, Sourav Ganguly retired in 2008, and India’s search for his replacement in the lower middle-order started and paused at Pujara in 2010.
He looked good, famously playing a match-winning 72 against Australia in the second innings of the test at Bangalore in 2009 where he came out to bat at no. 3 in place of a struggling Rahul Dravid. He became a hero. The future looked bright, but an unfortunate knee injury next year put the brakes on before he could outshine the world.
Until that century against New Zealand restarted that journey in August 2012.
Pujara had confirmed his potential. England came next and he rolled the gauntlet with a double century in the first game at Ahmedabad, and a ton in the second match of the series at Mumbai. He proved to be a saving grace and one of the few bright spots in India's first series loss at home in almost a decade.
The next opponent was Australia, and his willow amassed 419 runs through the series as the Aussies were dominantly whitewashed 4-0.
Although it was his century at Johannesburg and a total of 280 runs in 2 Tests against an ever challenging South African lineup that established him as the new Mr Dependable for India in Test Cricket.
The swinging struggle
Days of struggle, as every sportsperson witnesses re-occur, followed the merry days as his form dipped. The 2014 tour of England exposed his weakness against the seaming ball. Runs dried up. Question marks were set on his batting overseas. The questions broadened after his mediocre performance in Australia. He lost his place in the playing XI.
Pujara received his next opportunity in Sri Lanka in a series decider. Coming in to open, he carried his bat in difficult seaming conditions in Colombo, scoring a wonderful, match-winning 145*.
He kept scoring consistently through the next year in India but didn't exactly set the world on fire in South Africa, and India played their first game without him in their 2017 tour of England.
A disappointing batting performance by India in the first match opened the doors for his return for the second test, and as always, he grabbed it with both hands, hitting an absorbing, and a match-winning hundred only like he does among the present crop of batsmen.
The tour proved to be abysmal for the Indian batting with the exception of King Kohli, but Pujara had done enough to deserve more opportunities.
Then came India's tour Down Under.
It all started at Adelaide, fondly remembered for Pujara's well-known predecessor's heroics during the '03-'04 tour. It feels perfect that Pujara scored a century, and another precious half-century to seal a big win for the visitors; the first at the venue after the win in ’03.
He looked good at Perth in the first innings, well set for another big one, before nicking one down his legs. India lost.
The Boxing Day Test at Melbourne was next. He stuck at a pitch that appeared to be miserably slow on the first day and went on to grind a century before the Indian bowling attack dismantled the Aussies on a pitch that changed and became more active as the match went on despite an all-round super-show from Pat Cummins. India had retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy.
The 193 at Sydney was a stamp of authority for Pujara as India's MVP in Test Cricket. 521 runs and an amazing 1258 deliveries faced by India’s number 3 through the series became the difference between the two teams, as Kohli's men sealed a historic win down-under.
The batsman's story is that of resilience, patience and continuous pursuit of excellence. He fought through setbacks and cashed in on opportunities.
In the era of innovation, Pujara is old-school. In the age of IPL wonders, he is a first-class run machine. He is humble and a true gentleman. When the longest version of the game fights for survival, he is magic. At a time when spectators have got used to mammoth sixes, his persistence to being himself is what this game needs. He is that new role model the game needs.
Cheteshwar Pujara has sealed his fate for endless comparisons to Rahul Dravid. Though, neither like comparisons, yet cricket fans all over will. The silent workhorse, moulded in Indian domestic cricket and polished finer through county cricket deserved nothing less. He will have to get used to being called the new ‘Wall' or ‘Wall 2.0’ until some journalist or cricket pundit comes with an apter, fancy nickname for India's number three.
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