LAST summer, Cheteshwar Pujara could barely buy a run for Yorkshire in the County Championship.
He managed just 172 of them in 12 innings at an average of 14.33, a wretched return for any overseas batsman – let alone one ranked fourth in the world behind just Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Steve Smith.
Pujara was such a disappointment that half of his scores were in single figures and his highest contribution was just 41.
“Steve”, as he is affectionately known by his Yorkshire team-mates (“Cheteshwar” is a little too cumbersome to roll off the tongue), just could not get going to the extent that it was a relief all round when his short-term contract came to an end.
Contrast that with his form at present and the difference is as wide as Pujara’s ever-ready smile.
His 106 against Australia yesterday was his 17th Test hundred and helped India to 443-7 declared on day two of the third Test in Melbourne, the hosts closing on 8-0, with the four-match series standing tantalisingly poised at 1-1.
I had to work really hard to get to my hundred. I had to bat almost more than four sessions to reach a hundred, which is hardly the case (normally).Cheteshwar Pujara
Pujara’s performance followed match-winning contributions of 123 and 71 in the first Test in Adelaide, and although he managed only 24 and 4 in the second Test in Perth, it was merely a blip on the evidence of a Boxing Day Test that he has done much to swing India’s way.
This was the batsman that Yorkshire thought they had signed, the one who averages 50 at Test level but who, perhaps because of the unpredictable nature of early-season English conditions, or perhaps because of the innate unpredictability of professional sport, was a shadow of his usual self during his time at Emerald Headingley.
Pujara’s usual self is very much a throwback to a bygone era – the cricketing equivalent of the days when men would instinctively walk on the outside part of the pavement to protect approaching women from the risks of the road, such as the spray generated by a passing hansom cab or an impromptu tricycle race between oblivious scallywags.
For in an era when bulging biceps, thick with thick-headed tattoos, grow uncontrollably restless if an over passes by without a boundary or six, Pujara has the temperament to bat for long periods and the patience to leave ball after ball until the right one comes along for risk-free dispatch.
His hundred yesterday was his slowest in Tests, reached from 280 balls, and his innings encompassed 319 deliveries and 116.5 overs at the crease.
Courtesy of those who spend their lives calculating such things (and increasing numbers of these riveting folk abound in cricket and on social media in particular), it can be reported that Pujara attacked only one in every 9.3 balls faced, the lowest rate for all his Test hundreds, and that his scoring rate against good-length deliveries was 0.54 runs per over, emphasising his intent to grind down the bowlers.
Amid signs that the Melbourne pitch is starting to deteriorate in excess of expectation, with some balls skidding through and others taking off seemingly without warning, like Gatwick drones, Pujara expressed confidence that India already had sufficient runs to force a result and a 2-1 series lead going into the final match in Sydney on January 2.
He admitted that it had been difficult to score quickly, with his performance a triumph of endurance even by his own exalted standards in that regard.
“I had to work really hard to get to my hundred,” he said.
“I had to bat almost more than four sessions to reach a hundred, which is hardly the case (normally).
“Whenever I have batted I have got hundreds in three or four sessions, but in this game it looked (as though) I might have to bat more than four sessions to get to the hundred.
“It is a challenging pitch. As a batsman, I felt scoring was really difficult, and, seeing the variable bounce, it will get tougher to bat on.”
While all the talk going into the series and during much of it too has been of Kohli, his freakishly gifted captain, Pujara has been quietly shaping the rubber and playing what may yet prove to be the defining role in it.
The 30-year-old may have little of Kohli’s style, swagger or supreme self-confidence, bordering on the arrogance of Caesar, but he has an unflappable talent of the type that has taken him to the very next rank of batsmanship and which persuaded Yorkshire to sign him in the first place.
It did not work out for Pujara in Leeds, where he shone only in the 50-over version of the sport.
Down Under, however, it has been a different story, with “Steve” once more showcasing his effectively antiquated modus operandi.