He didn’t have to defend. He didn’t have to get out. Only on the penultimate ball of the 78th over having batted for nearly an entire day did Cheteshwar Pujara attempt a half-hearted slash outside off on Sam Curran. Luckily there was no edge and the ball signalled a wide.
This wasn’t just a failed heave by a batsman in form. This wasn’t the most beautiful stroke on God’s mighty earth either.
This was an example of desperation by a batsman who’d been no stranger to a desperate situation.
Did Pujara rescue a fledgling career through his defining century at Southampton?
Did Pujara move his captain and a T20 loving country that’s accustomed to celebrating the thumping fist of a Virat ton- to the edge of its seat?
But what seems highly likely is that Pujara rescued a career at England, a team against which he’s scored his highest individual score in the only format he plays and a side against whom his form compelled even purists to pose doubt on a man they said could be another Dravid at number three.
This was Cheteshwar Pujara batting with tail-enders, pushing the oddball toward the covers for a single, nudging a wayward delivery on the pads for a single off the last ball, it’s not always that the sight of a developing 10th wicket partnership contends India way more than its batsmen’s failure to take the team to a score of over 400, something not yet managed by India on this tour.
The great Cheteshwar Pujara turnaround
But Pujara has been in similar situations where runs haven’t been easy to come by.
A few years back but in the warmth of home conditions, while he was on his way to his 206, Pujara sought refuge in the support Ashwin provided. This time there was Bumrah at the other end. This time, the final pair shoved England’s pressure aside, lifted the team over the tied score and constructed a handy 30 plus run partnership that was beginning to blossom.
What separated India’s number 3 on this occasion was that while he had already found to his comfort the tag of being a new ‘Mr dependable’ circa 2012- season, on this occasion, he was fighting hard to save that reputation.
Let’s make no bones about it; this is a reputation worth salvaging. This is a batting position worth proving your mettle at the highest level in Test cricket.
It’s not a familiar sight for Pujara- someone who entered the English tour of 2018 with over 1100 Test runs in the past season- to find his off stump disturbed. Nor has it been a regular sight for the Indian cricket fan to participate in online trolls for a batsman who found his image tarnished, his woes exacerbated an absolute dryness of runs as seen this season.
Before Pujara entered the Rose Bowl, there were no flowery moments for him. His critics who much rather wanted someone else to wallop his place in the team had appeared like giant cactuses.
There was a lot at stake
Truth be told, you couldn’t have blamed anyone else for his blues but Pujara himself.
After all imagining him losing his wicket to a deliberately pitched shorter delivery pulled towards deep square leg boundary was an indication of a man trying to live another day. It wasn’t as much about offering catching practice to an opponent against whom Pujara’s weaknesses had been exposed akin to an India dominated by its past colonial masters.
To that extent, none can blame Pujara’s sense of occasion for choosing an all to play for contest to spur a revival of sorts.
Come Day 2 of the Fourth Test and there would be but one bat shining akin to the lush green outfield where the bat ruled the ball for a change.
It would finally mark but not before yielding a painstaking effort of facing nearly 250 deliveries and counting a century that you’d rate among the best by an Indian number 3 given the circumstances it came in.
There was a career to be saved
There was a reputation to be upheld.
But should Pujara be forgiven for leaving fans who still long for a tour de force every time an opening wicket falls and the number 3 walks out to bat?
We don’t know.
We are neither gifted with the privilege of judging nor qualified for anointing laurels.
It’s wise to leave elite cricketing bodies like the ICC or the BCCI to that regard.
But what we do know is that a career that seemed on the edge of the precipice beyond which lay the inevitable fall- got stuck in the limbo of time. It was as if an obdurate force of nature put time on a standstill.
For a change, Virat clenched his fist and exulted but not from the 22 yards but from the team’s balcony.
For a change, Pujara stayed doggedly firm where he’s always seemed to belong.
It might be safe to concur; Cheteshwar Pujara- 132 not out- will live another day.