Midway through the afternoon, Edgbaston fell into a Sunday lull. The clouds had closed over, the wind had dropped, in the Hollies Stand the Teletubbies were sitting quietly over their pints, the Pope was thumbing his phone and WG Grace seemed to have nodded off into his beard. The last chant of Don’t Take Me Home had died out a while back. No one was roaring, shouting, sighing, or singing, and even that one Indian fan who had spent the entire day screaming Virat Kohli’s name over and over again seemed to have lost his voice. Cheteshwar Pujara can do that to a crowd.
They had been spoiled in the morning, when Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow had batted like they had breakfasted on benzedrines and brandy.
They have been spoiled all summer by Brendon McCullum’s manic plan to reinvent the way they play and make the game more entertaining by rattling along at four-and-a-half runs an over. It’s all fours and sixes when they’re batting, short balls and five-man slip cordons when they’re bowling.
Which was one reason why England were 132 runs behind when Pujara walked out with Shubman Gill to open India’s second innings.
The deficit meant this next stretch of play was one of those when everyone watching knows the match is about to turn one of two ways. England’s best chance of winning from this position depended on whether or not their bowlers could take wickets with this new ball, because as soon as it started to turn soft on them that lead would grow so quickly that it would soon end up out of even Bairstow’s reach.
The crowd knew it too, and rose to the moment. They erupted once when Jimmy Anderson had Gill caught at slip with the third ball of his first over, and then again when he beat his replacement at the crease, Hanuma Vihari, with a delivery that whizzed off the pitch past his outside edge. At the other end Stuart Broad was on, and he was steaming. This was his first over since he was walloped all around Edgbaston by Jasprit Bumrah on Saturday morning, and he bowled like it. The speed gun clocked one of his opening deliveries at 90mph.
Pujara, 34, 95 Tests and 12 years of Test cricket behind him, met this hard challenge with soft hands. He is, always has been, a throwback of a batsman, one of the few Indian players who has been shut out of the IPL, which he last played in back in 2014. He hasn’t played any sort of T20 in the last three years, and while Gill, Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant, and the rest of his teammates were playing in the Indian Premier League this spring, Pujara was plugging away for Sussex in the second division of the county championship, getting ready for this series.
He could have gone to the IPL, he was notionally part of the Chennai Super Kings squad that won the title in 2021 but he didn’t actually play for them and this year he decided that it would a better use of his time to sign for a team who were actually going to pick him. Pujara’s qualities, immaculate defence, impeccable judgment, and an iron-willed sense of intent that has seen him repeatedly criticised (sometimes by his own teammates) for slow-scoring, aren’t the sort that franchise scouts tend to seek out. They don’t fill stadiums, or sell well on social media, but they suit red-ball cricket just fine.
He reeled off four centuries in six innings for Sussex, two of them doubles. He needed it. His last first-class hundred was two years ago, his last Test one a year further back than that, a run of poor form which led to him being dropped from the Indian Test squad earlier this year, along with Ajinkye Rahane and Ishant Sharma. They had their contracts downgraded too. But you guess India’s new coach, Rahul Dravid, always wanted him in the side for this one-off Test. Dravid, who was Pujara’s childhood idol, was a sight more elegant than Pujara is, but shared many of those same monkish qualities himself.
And it paid here. Pujara soaked up everything England threw at him, Vihari came and went, Kohli too. At one point he tried to call Pujara through for a quick single off a misfield at slip. Pujara didn’t even move his feet for it. He just batted implacably on, saw off Anderson and Broad, weathered one superb spell from Matt Potts, and another from Ben Stokes, on, and on, through two reviews for LBW, blocking, leaving, picking off singles. He spent 40 balls crawling through the 30s, 27 more in the 40s, and the minutes he spent on 49 before he finally brought up his 50 (from 139 balls) seemed to stretch on for an eternity.
But then Pujara isn’t worried about hurrying the game along, or whether or not anyone is entertained by the way he plays, or about anything much apart from putting a high price on his wicket. These days England play like they think Test cricket is burning down around them. If it is, Pujara doesn’t seem to have noticed.