India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara. (REUTERS)
India batsman Cheteshwar Pujara. (REUTERS)

Cheteshwar Pujara, the man for the Aegeas Bowl

Cheteshwar Pujara returns to Southampton, where he scored his first hundred in England and turned into a feared opponent in overseas conditions
UPDATED ON JUN 14, 2021 10:29 PM IST

India have played only two Tests at Southampton, the venue for the World Test Championship final, and both were heavy defeats. It’s fair to say that most Indian players don’t have pleasant memories of the ground, though for Cheteshwar Pujara, that memory is tempered with something different—this is where he resurrected a Test career that was floundering.

In 2018, he played the lone ranger in India’s first innings with an unbeaten 132 in a match that India eventually lost by 60 runs.

For Pujara, it was a breakthrough—his first hundred in England.

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In his own words, he was a different player after that. It showed in his next overseas tour, Australia, where he scored three hundreds to lead India to a historic victory.

“There was a time when people used to say I have scored runs only in India, then I started scoring runs in England, Australia, South Africa,” Pujara said. “Scoring runs overseas means a lot to batters and I am no exception. I also enjoy scoring runs overseas and when it is in England, you feel better as a player. You are complete. You feel you can score runs wherever you go, and it came at the right time.

That year had started on a tough note for the India No 3. The pressure had built on him in the South Africa series after he averaged a disastrous 16.67 in six innings.

To prepare for the England series in August-September, he turned to County cricket. It did not help. Pujara managed only 172 runs in 12 innings at 14.33, and went past 40 only on one occasion during his stint with Yorkshire.

Not surprisingly, in the series opener at Edgbaston, Pujara found himself dropped from the playing XI. When he was included in the second Test at Lord’s his returns were one and 17 runs. A better innings of 72 followed in the second innings at Trent Bridge, but Pujara’s position was still not secure when the fourth Test began at the Rose Bowl, Southampton.

Then, something clicked. As wickets fell around him, Pujara stood rocksteady. After England had scored 246, India were tottering at 195 for eight. The India No 3 batted with the last two batsmen to help India take the lead.

It was not just the runs he scored. Pujara showed that he had the ability to shepherd the tail, and with a strike rate of 51.36, that he could force the pace if he wanted to. He had done both in spin-friendly wickets before, but here he was doing it in pace-friendly conditions, against the moving ball. For him, it was about passing the ultimate test in batsmanship for a sub-continent player. The cracking lofted shot to the long-on fence off Stuart Broad when the second new ball was taken stood out because no one had seen Pujara play it before. Earlier, he had reached his hundred by stepping out and lofting spinner Moeen Ali over his head.

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“The team was in trouble, I had to bat with the tail, we were six or seven down without enough runs on the board so I had to take charge and accelerate, make sure that the team reaches a reasonable total,” he said. “I just tried to play some shots, have a partnership with the tailenders. Scoring runs in England is a different feeling altogether. I enjoyed that.”

So how does he think he will feel when he takes guard at Southampton again?

“It gives you a psychological advantage. I always felt that experience in the past can help you make the right decisions, but cricket is a sport where you need to be in the present,” Pujara said. “That experience will definitely help me, but at the same time, you need to start fresh, need to assess the conditions again. Even if you are playing at the same venue, the pitch can be a little different from what you have played in the past. You still need to be prepared for something you are not expecting.”

India’s opponents in the WTC final, New Zealand, will feel much more at home in the usual wet and windy conditions of Southampton.

“It is a true Test match venue,” Pujara said. “All over the UK there is always help for the fast bowlers, but Southampton has some help for the spinners also. It is a fair contest where you need to work hard to score your runs, an even contest.”

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