No matter the reputation one carries, there’s a certain innings in every successful cricketer’s career which becomes his defining moment -- that is when the past masters give their nod of approval.
For Sachin Tendulkar that moment came in his 16th Test when he braved the Australian attack on a fiery Perth pitch; Rahul Dravid’s came in his ninth Test when he hit 148 and 81 at Johannesburg against Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock; and Cheteshwar Pujara had his at the Wankhede Stadium on Friday.
The Saurashtra batsman is not given to public show of emotions but, on Friday, he would’ve walked into the dressing room with his chest puffed up with pride.
He has already notched up three hundreds in his brief seven-Test career, but it’s the knock in the first innings of the second Test against England that has announced his arrival on the big stage.
The knock came in conditions which would have tested the mettle of the most seasoned campaigners, what with the track keeping pacers interested and spinners grinning from ear to ear.
Exhibiting remarkable qualities he possesses — patience, concentration, footwork and sublime stroke-making — Pujara batted all but two balls bowled to him on the opening day to return unconquered on 114, helping his team out of trouble.
So far, he has notched up 361 runs without being dismissed in three innings. Riding on his fighting hundred and his 97-run unfinished partnership for the seventh wicket with R Ashwin (60*), India recovered from 169 for six to 266 for six at the close of play.
The Indian skipper’s regular demands for a wicket with bite and bounce seemed to have been accepted, with the Mumbai Cricket Association rolling out just the kind of wicket he wanted.
The ball was turning from the first session, and, at one point, it looked like MS Dhoni’s tactics would backfire.
The England captain introduced left-arm spinner Monty Panesar in the seventh over and he made an immediate impact with the wickets of big guns Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli.
Being called up for duty for the first time since March, the spinner was all pumped up and gave the ball a real rip.
At the other end, Graeme Swann too gave away nothing. With India's ‘new Wall’ Pujara equally determined, a fascinating battle ensued.
That the Saurashtra batsman had to use every skill he acquired while cutting his teeth in the domestic grind to keep them at bay speaks volumes about how they bowled.
When the ball was flighted, Pujara was quick to jump out and smother the spin. When Monty pushed it through, he used his reach and wrist to get over the top of the bounce.
Pujara knew that just occupying the crease for survival was foolhardy on the given surface, and hence looked to score most of the time.
The pattern of play during his two useful partnerships — with Dhoni that raised 50 runs and then with Ashwin — looked like a game of chess, with the batsmen keen on capitalising on every opportunity.
Despite all his expert play, Pujara could have been back in the hut for 60 when Panesar induced an edge but Anderson, at second slip, failed to hold on to it. It's a miss that England might rue for the rest of the series.
Earlier, Dhoni stumped England by going in with three spinners and one pacer. Although, on the match eve, he had said he would stick with the two-pacer and two-spinner combination, he sprung a surprise by including Harbhajan. Given how the wicket behaved on Day One, Dhoni should be happy with the move.