Cheteshwar Pujara carries the tag of a run machine. After a match-winning 72 in the second innings of his debut Test against Australia, the right hander scored 159 against New Zealand, and followed it with an unbeaten double ton and a 135-run masterclass against England on a turner in Mumbai.
Three more centuries in the next three series against Australia, West Indies and South Africa followed, and it was assumed that the soft-spoken man from Saurashtra was the one to fill the void left by Rahul Dravid. Then came a run of 22 Test innings that saw him muster just three fifties. Doubts began to appear over his efficiency and conversion rate, and after he grinded 46 runs from 159 balls in the second Test in Jamaica, he was dropped.
Pujara is also known to be a workhorse. Barely a month after MS Dhoni’s team came home from a 1-3 drubbing at the hands of England in 2014, Pujara returned to the English shores to find answers to the dismal run that had seen him average 22.2 runs in the series. He replaced Shivnarine Chanderpaul in Derbyshire, albeit for the final three matches. It was not long before he produced a classic unbeaten 145 in Colombo on a seaming track. Then, West Indies happened.
On Sunday, Pujara combined the tags for India Blue in the Duleep Trophy final. In the process, he allayed concerns over his strike rate and possibly his place in the Test XI. With the team for the first two Tests against New Zealand set to be announced today, and the selectors and India coach Anil Kumble watching, Pujara’s unbeaten 256, at a strike rate of 70.52, couldn’t have come at a better time.
He had played 153 balls to reach his hundred on Saturday, when he also crossed the 10,000-run-mark at the first-class level. He took just 134 balls to score his next 100 runs, and his next fifty runs came off 40 balls. He stamped his authority on the opposition for the second consecutive match --- his double ton has come on the back of 166 and 31 runs he scored against Suresh Raina’s India Green last week. While solidity has always been his forte, this Duleep Trophy has seen Pujara willing to dominate.
On a track that had cracks on the good length area, Pujara did not hesitate to step out or milk the ball. The shot that got him to his tenth first-class double hundred --- a flick towards mid-wicket for a boundary --- summed up his approach.
Pradeep Sangwan bowled Dinesh Karthik off the first ball of the day, but Pujara found an able ally in Saurashtra teammate Sheldon Jackson. The 29-year-old cruised to his 11th first-class ton and the duo added 243 for the fourth wicket at over four runs per over. Jackson was dropped thrice --- by Yuvraj Singh, Stuart Binny and Shikhar Dhawan --- before he reached his century with back-to-back fours off Amit Mishra.
Ravindra Jadeja, another Saurashtra batsman, regaled the spectators with a quickfire 48 that included three fours and two sixes. Jadeja fell to the part-time spin of Abhinav Mukund, and Gautam Gambhir declared at 693/6, leaving India Red to deal with a tricky nine-over period on a crumbling track.
Rajasthan pacer Pankaj Singh sent back the in-form Abhinav Mukund and Sudip Chatterjee off successive balls in the first over, and Red ended a miserable day at 16 for 2.