Impressive beginning to Pujara's Indian career
If there were any suspicions Cheteshwar Pujara was a flat track bully, the recent tour to South Africa put an end to them.
India's new run machine arrived in New Zealand last week coming off a remarkable 2013 in which he plundered 829 runs from eight tests at an average of 75. Of the 10 top run scorers in test cricket last year, Pujara, South Africa's AB de Villiers (933 runs at 78) and New Zealand's Ross Taylor (866 at 72) were the only ones to average more than 70.
The 26-year-old from Rajkot in the Gujarat province proved himself against the world's best pace attack, too, hitting 280 runs at 70 against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel before Christmas. That included 153 at Johannesburg. In three previous first-class games in India this season, he scored 306 not out and 269.
Pujara stepped into the No 3 spot previously occupied by Rahul Dravid who similarly put a huge price on his wicket. Dravid was the most adept of a star-studded Indian batting lineup to negotiate the green seamers of the 2002-03 tour, and Pujara will get his chance to show he can handle swing and bounce in the next two tests.
"He's an excellent player. His statistics are very impressive and he's been a real rock for them," said New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, who watched Pujara score 159 against them in Hyderabad in his sixth test innings in 2012.
"We have to make sure that we hang in there long enough against a guy of his quality. The pace and the bounce will ask some different questions of him and we have to make sure we execute and keep nagging in that area against him."
Pujara got the hunger for runs early and scored his first triple-century at an under-14 tournament. He also cracked a double-century for India under-19 against their England counterparts. But coming from Rajkot, which has a reputation as the flattest pitch in India, Pujara took six seasons of first-class cricket to break into the test ranks.
In 17 tests he now averages 66, and his batting has drawn comparisons with former Indian opener Sunil Gavaskar.
His skipper, MS Dhoni, reckoned the New Zealanders will have to be patient to dislodge his team's new batting kingpin.
"He has been really consistent right from the word go. He's more of a banker; he respects the bowlers and wants them to pitch into his areas before playing the big shots," Dhoni said.
"He loves to spend time in the middle and it's not easy to tempt him. He's definitely someone who reads the game well so that's a big positive and three is a crucial slot in the test matches. He's ideally suited and he'll build on the success he's had and keep getting better and better every season."