Contemplate for a moment Cheteshwar Pujara as he walked out to bat amongst dragonflies here at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Wednesday morning. What might he have been thinking?
India, chasing 207 on a fifth-day wicket in the second Test against Australia, had lost Virender Sehwag — caught smartly by wicketkeeper Tim Paine off a Ben Hilfenhaus lifter that had left the right-hander — with no more than 17 runs on the board.
Pujara's maiden innings had lasted three balls, terminated by a molly-grubber — the sort of dismissal that stays in the system, a splintered, worrisome bullet resistant to extraction. And not only had the 22-year-old replaced V.V.S. Laxman in the eleven, he had now replaced Rahul Dravid at one-drop.
How intensely will Pujara have felt the pressures of the situation? Will he have known the snide lines that had already begun to circulate — that he was the ‘lunch-watchman', a sacrificial wicket before the break? Will he have wondered if the thousands of runs he had scored at the first-class level were any indication of his worth as a batsman?
These questions weren't so much answered as transcended in two hours and nine minutes of top-class batsmanship. All that remained after Pujara's 72 was for Sachin Tendulkar (53 n.o.) and Rahul Dravid (21 n.o.) to apply the finishing touches on India's seven-wicket win.
Fittingly, Tendulkar, with scores of 98, 38, and 214 this series, hit the winning runs, a paddle-swept, hard-scampered two, off Nathan Hauritz.
Where the Mohali chase was a wonder, created from Laxman's magic-flecked batting and Ishant Sharma's spirit and spine, Bangalore was almost absurdly easy, a tricky target reached at a canter.
India strengthened its position at No. 1 with the victory; the 2-0 win was India's first clean-sweep against Australia in a series of two or more matches. Pujara's innings was the most recent instance of an Indian cricketer finding his best when his team most needed it — it's this quality, this resilience of character that has allowed India ascend Test cricket's throne. Although the crown doesn't sit as securely as it did on the heads of West Indies and Australia, such victories will help keep it.
Pujara knew on Wednesday morning that he would bat at ‘three', a tactical decision to inject the lower middle-order with Dravid's experience; he was told by India's council of elders not to dwell on the first-innings dismissal — easier said than done; Tendulkar asked him to believe in himself and trust the rest to a higher power.
Pujara decided he would stay in the present, he would react to each ball — batting's most fundamental tenet, but also its most forgotten. He wasn't quite in the present when he got off the mark; he nearly ran M. Vijay out. That would have been a tragedy, for Vijay had already batted splendidly, thinking little of the precariousness of India's position.
But after that fretful moment, Vijay and Pujara wrenched the game from Australia, putting on 72 off just 78 balls. Vijay played with nonchalant elegance, finding the gaps inevitable in diffused, in-out fields with wrist-work. He did enough when the Australians tried to attack his body with short-pitched deliveries, staying side-on as far as possible.
Pujara's batting has an uncut pleasantness about it, rough lines that smoothen surprisingly on occasion into conventional handsomeness. He's a tall man, not uncommonly so, but he's low with his hands in stance — they appear to rest between his legs and just beneath the knees. From this marginally ungainly posture, Pujara unfolds to meet the ball.
The cover-drive off Mitchell Johnson that brought his first four wasn't lilting; but nor was it unattractive. The stooped push off the back-foot, against Hilfenhaus, looked clumsy, but the sweetness of the timing hung in the air like a jazz note.
Pujara played Hauritz beautifully, advancing with short, quick steps to drive past mid-off and through cover for fours. Most encouraging of all was his willingness to pull and hook, strokes he has developed and tested on tours of England and Australia with India ‘A'.
Pujara may have eventually been dismissed — playing inside the line, like Vijay (37) before him, beaten by the blend of angle and movement — but he had fulfilled his purpose.
Tendulkar reprised the veteran's reassuring part to complete what Zaheer Khan (three for 41) and Sreesanth (two for 48) had begun in the morning with reverse-swing.
Thus concluded a series of rich entertainment and grand drama. The cricket wasn't consistently of a high standard, but there were moments of splendour and greatness. We can ask for no more.
Australia — 1st innings: 478.
India — 1st innings: 495.
Australia — 2nd innings: S. Watson lbw b Ojha 32 ( 58b, 4x4), S. Katich c Dhoni b Harbhajan 24 ( 45b, 2x4), R. Ponting lbw b Zaheer 72 ( 117b, 7x4, 1x6), M. Clarke st. Dhoni b Ojha 3 ( 18b), M. Hussey lbw b Ojha 20 ( 51b, 1x4), M. North b Harbhajan 3 ( 14b), T. Paine c Dhoni b Sreesanth 23 ( 63b, 2x4), M. Johnson b Zaheer 11 ( 30b, 2x4), N. Hauritz (not out) 21 ( 48b, 2x4), B. Hilfenhaus b Sreesanth 0 ( 7b), P. George c Dhoni b Zaheer 0 ( 5b); Extras (b-1, lb-5, nb-5, w-3): 14. Total (in 75.2 overs): 223.
Fall of wickets: 1-58 (Watson), 2-58 (Katich), 3-65 (Clarke), 4-126 (Hussey), 5-131 (North), 6-181 (Ponting), 7-185 (Paine), 8-217 (Johnson), 9-218 (Hilfenhaus).
India bowling: Zaheer 11.2-1-41-3, Sreesanth 14-2-48-2, Ojha 25-5-57-3, Harbhajan 21-2-63-2, Sehwag 4-0-8-0.
India — 2nd innings: M. Vijay lbw b Watson 37 ( 45b, 6x4), V. Sehwag c Paine b Hilfenhaus 7 ( 6b, 1x4), C. Pujara b Hauritz 72 ( 89b, 7x4), S. Tendulkar (not out) 53 ( 77b, 5x4, 2x6), R. Dravid (not out) 21 ( 53b, 2x4); Extras (b-8, lb-5, w-4): 17. Total (for three wkts. in 45 overs): 207.
Fall of wickets: 1-17 (Sehwag), 2-89 (Vijay), 3-146 (Pujara).
Australia bowling: Hilfenhaus 7-0-27-1, Johnson 14-4-42-0, Hauritz 12-0-76-1, George 7-0-29-0, Watson 5-0-20-1 .