Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t stop laughing. He laughed through a host of television and radio interviews. At one point, he knelt down, sprinkled some water on his face to conceal the fatigue after batting through most of the hottest Adelaide day this December — and beamed again at the camera.
Behind the smile, and the fatigue, was a set of numbers on an intriguing day of Test cricket: 123 from 246 balls that helped India recover from 41 for four to 250 for nine.
During the mandatory media interaction later, he laughed the loudest when he was asked: “Shall I call you Steve?” That was the name from his days in Yorkshire, where they couldn’t get their tongue around “Cheteshwar”. Cue the retort: “Not really, I would like to be called Pujara.”
The cheeriness reflected the satisfaction of his first hundred in Australia, on the first day of a Test series, his team in a shambles — a response to those who amplified his technical inadequacies overseas. He couldn’t have asked for a better setting to underscore his credentials, seldom doubted but often taken for granted. Like in England, where he was discarded to make way for a top-three of Murali Vijay–Shikhar Dhawan-KL Rahul, a decision that was always destined to backfire.
It’s a strange predicament — to be the most vulnerable batsman in a batting revamp, despite producing some of the most trenchant knocks in the last couple of years. He reiterated that value with a firefighting hundred in Southampton after being dropped for the first Test in the England tour. In Adelaide, it was a similar effort in tenor, though this would rank higher in terms of its tone-setting value, an epic that could echo throughout this Australia series.
There was a level of personal gratification, too. Just after the first Ranji match of the season, Pujara developed a severe pain in the neck, a consequence of his upright stance. Then his father’s illness robbed him of days of preparation, and he had to skip the India-A tour to New Zealand where some of his colleagues had gone in a bid to prepare for this series.
However, until the moment he reached his hundred Thursday — scampering like a turbocharged Duracell bunny for a couple — he hardly laughed, or even smiled. Especially when the landmark beckoned, as the shadows of the roof-shades crept into the ground.
On 89, he attempted the least Pujara-like stroke of this knock, a wild one-handed slash outside off-stump. The next two strokes — a hooked six and a pulled four — didn’t his soothe his anxiety either. He was then off strike and on 99.
His partner Mohammed Shami, meanwhile, nodded assurance but did not display any. The tailender missed a waft, and smiled gingerly at Pujara. Next ball, Shami threaded the gap, unintentionally, between slip and gully for a single. The ball after, Pujara bolted for that big run.
It was that kind of a day. One that required labour than lazy elegance, grit than guts, determination than daring. But by the time Pujara got a measure of the strip, three partners had whistled back to the pavilion, with India one short of 20.
Pujara himself was looking rusty, poking outside off-stump and late to judge length. But when the scent of the battle kicked in, he cut out his strokes and focused on survival, like a man on a raft who had escaped a shipwreck. At one point, he admonished himself for stabbing at a wide ball.
Slowly, the Australian bowlers surrendered their intensity. And when R Ashwin departed at 189 for seven, Pujara began to unleash his strokes. “Batting with the lower order, there was no other option, but to go for quick runs,” he said later.
With Ishant Sharma and Shami, he added 61 runs, bringing up another unsung aspect of his game, the ability to shepherd the lower order. As the end neared, he punished some good deliveries too before a run-out brought an end to his innings, and the day. And the name “Steve”, now a reminder of the gritty Australian legend Steve Waugh, sat comfortably on his shoulders. But then, he would still insist: “Call me Pujara.”