Long live Steve! And long live Test cricket!
There were a number of notable individual performances in the absorbing recent first Test in Adelaide between Australia and India, but one player stood out above all others in a contest that India, deservedly and dramatically, edged by 31 runs. And that was Cheteshwar Pujara, the right-handed India No3 known by his sometime Yorkshire colleagues as “Steve”, whose innings of 123 and 71 in baking heat were, quite possibly, beauty personified if you’re a fan of Test cricket.
Of course, one person’s beautiful may be someone else’s grotesque. And if your cricketing definition of beauty is a few sixes being struck into the crowd à la IPL or Big Bash amid blaring music and cheerleaders, Pujara’s display may not necessarily have been up your alley. (Although hearty congratulations are due to you if any particular Twenty20 innings lingers in your memory.) But if you enjoy a batsman showing the sort of exquisite judgement, temperament and technique that Pujara demonstrated for hour upon hour – and particularly given that a raft of his colleagues surrendered their wickets in the first innings with crassly expansive shots on a surface that was never straightforward for batting – then the honorary Yorkshireman’s overall performance, during which he passed 5,000 Test runs, was a joy to behold.
Indeed, one could only doff one’s cap at the continued manner in which he mixed vigilant defence with adroit manipulation of the ball into the gaps as and when opportunities arose. During the course of the match, the 30-year-old from Rajkot eschewed almost any risk, mustering his 194 runs from 450 balls and striking only 18 boundaries. It was riveting viewing. And India’s reward was their first Test victory in Australia since 2008. It was also a triumph that would have been unthinkable without Pujara’s twin contributions. More than that, it potentially paves the way for India to win a Test series in Australia for the first time ever.
That is for the future, although it promises to be a cracking four-match series between an Australia side struggling to regain its identity after the ball-tampering disgrace in Cape Town in March (and a side, of course, still lacking its two best batsmen: the banned Steve Smith and David Warner) and a marvellously balanced India team that is dynamically and aggressively led by Virat Kohli.
In the meantime, let us celebrate the rehabilitation of Pujara, who was dropped by his country for the opening Test in England last summer after averaging a wretched 14.33 for Yorkshire in six championship matches and then twice falling cheaply against Essex in the tourists’ only warm-up match before the first Test.
And let us also celebrate Pujara’s continuing contribution to Test cricket. He is a batsman who actually assumes a batsman’s stance rather than that of a baseball player. He is a Test cricketer who, glory be, appears to preserve his wicket as if his very life depends upon it.
The beautiful batting of Cheteshwar Pujara.