English cricket supporters of a certain vintage still have nightmares about the summer of ’89, when Steve Waugh announced himself on the international stage with a couple of monumental hundreds.
By the time England finally managed to dismiss him in the third Test at Edgbaston, he had batted 790 minutes and faced 585 balls for 393 runs.
Now, nearly a quarter century on, there’s another 24-year-old bogeyman. English team talks before this series wouldn’t have focussed unduly on Cheteshwar Pujara, but less than three innings into the series, they’re likely to be sick of the sight of him. Pujara’s dominance-defiance of the attack now extends to 361 runs off 719 balls. He has already spent over two and a half days at the crease.
There was a time when Indian fans contemplated the retirements of their middle-order titans in the same way that the Mayans looked at 2012 AD. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid joined Sourav Ganguly on Retirement Row earlier this year, while Sachin Tendulkar hasn’t gone past 27 in his last nine innings. The old order hasn’t faded completely, but the final flick of the switch is mere months rather than years away.
Only now, with Pujara and Virat Kohli establishing themselves, there is no longer a sense of foreboding about moving on. Kohli still tends to get frustrated when he can’t bat at his chosen tempo, but there is a serenity to Pujara’s play that must be so reassuring for a dressing room that relied for so long on Dravid’s poise and tenacity at No.3.
Since making his first-class debut seven years ago, Pujara has mostly been compared to Dravid. He has frustrated and dominated Ranji Trophy attacks and made a habit of scoring big hundreds. And in an age when Twenty20 is king in India, he bats to the unhurried rhythms of a previous generation.
On a pitch where there was appreciable turn from the first session, his footwork and judgment of which balls to play were near impeccable. England were left to rue another couple of half-chances not taken, and, just to rub it in, Pujara reached his century with a pull for four against the second new ball – the least convincing shot in his repertoire
“It was a brilliant knock,” said R Ashwin, whose seventh-wicket partnership with Pujara is already worth 97. “It was a very, very well paced. If he had not got the hundred, it would have been a shame.
“He has a got great temperament and is in great form. He keeps on grinding out runs. Even in domestic cricket, he gets big hundreds.”
The Dravid comparisons are a tribute to Pujara’s powers of concentration and a defence not easily breached, but in terms of style he has more in common with Laxman. Whether it was clipping Shane Warne through midwicket against the turn or driving Muttiah Muralitharan inside-out through cover, Laxman was a master on low and slow pitches.
Pujara seems as adept against the turning ball, whether driving, rocking back to cut or playing his favourite tuck off the pads. When the fours dry up, as they did today, he’s content to rotate the strike and let a more aggressive partner like Ashwin take centre stage.
Pujara’s rich form has also deflected attention from Tendulkar’s miserable year. Those nine failures have seen him bowled four times and leg-before twice. After being bowled in the recent series against New Zealand, there was an angry swipe of the bat, the closest we’ve come to seeing rage against the dying light.
More than a decade after Nasser Hussain came up with the idea of Ashley Giles bowling into the leg-stump rough to thwart Tendulkar, England have a much younger adversary to worry about. Ashwin, who has played with and against Pujara since they were teenagers, offered some clues.
“I have taken his wicket a few times,” he said with a grin. “I had him lbw.”
Easier said than done, given how broad Pujara’s bat has been all series.