Cristiano Ronaldo’s rivalry with Lionel Messi is a known one, with fans holding one’s stature over the other but the reality remains that one pushes the other to compete at the top. Put in the context of Test cricket, the trio of Williamson, Kohli and Smith get the best out of each other.
While Cheteshwar Pujara might not feature in the same bracket as of the other batsmen in the list, his influence on world cricket has been immense. Ever since Pujara has arrived onto the scene, the teams have feared him out batting them, toying 40 overs with their bowlers every time he wanders around in the pitch. The fear is remarkable and so is Pujara’s rivalry with some of the best bowlers in the world.
Back in 2018, Australia got their real first Test at home when Pujara wielded his bat and donned the famous ‘Dravid’ robe. The Australian bowlers went to their tried and tested method of bowling outside the off-stump, that plan didn’t work. Then their minds wandered to the short-ball theory and that didn’t work. After they tried, failed and tried more and failed, they gave up ultimately - as the right-hander played out 1258 deliveries, across seven innings, with over 521 runs from the series. It was reminiscent of how Sachin Tendulkar handled peak Shane Warne and not just handled him but outplayed him, that was in short how Pujara played Cummins.
Jump to 2020, the rivalry continued, the Australian bowlers versus the new-age wall. To a whole lot of people, Pujara’s batting in 2018 seemed to be a surprise more than anything, they reckoned that the right-hander wouldn’t conjure up as many runs in the 2020 series. One thing that they couldn’t and wouldn’t predict is the Saurashtrian’s dismissal.
“It was a great arm wrestle,” credited McDonald of the battle between the Indian bowlers and the Australian batsman. In reality, throughout the series, the battle between Pujara and the home bowlers has been a great ambassador of ‘arm-wrestling’. If anything, it has been the best ambassador of it, as none of the two sides are looking to give up at any point. And then the great battle started, which put every cricket fan on the hook.
At the Adelaide Oval, Pujara batted 219 minutes, battled several tough passages, when Pat Cummins caused all sorts of trouble alongside Josh Hazlewood. Throw in Nathan Lyon, it made it all the more difficult for the visitors, who were already aware of the off-spinner’s exploits in these conditions. While he threw in the towel and held his fortress right, he was undone later by one of Nathan Lyon’s best deliveries in the series. When it seemingly was tough for the Australian bowling unit, it required the best out of the off-spinner.
Ever since then, nothing has changed throughout the series, Pujara has stayed put, the Australian bowlers visibly frustrated and the Indian fans growling over his intent. The intent was rather apparent and defined, yet it seemingly didn’t catch the eye of the Indian fans. Pujara was going to defend, block, day in, day out, be it Sydney, Adelaide or even the Railway Cricket Ground in Rajkot. But this tuk-tuk approach has warranted a different set of approach from the Australians. It wasn’t all short-deliveries and it wasn’t all leg-side like it was in the series before.
Yet his battle with Cummins and Hazlewood would go down as one of the best rivalries, even overshadowing India’s battle with Australia. It was indeed a battle of space, not in Mumbai but around in Australia, the bowler wants the length as his hostage and Pujara wants to take control over it. Neither of the parties wants to give it up and nor do they want to own it up. The Saurashtra batsman with his soft hands and the New South Welsh bowlers with their fickle brain. For both of them, it is their tried and tested method yet the battle is intriguing.
There is Cummins at one end, who is seemingly altering the physics of the game, with his ability to do abnormal things on the pitch, at the other is Hazlewood, who is one of the last left programmed cricketers in world cricket. When these two run into bowl, they don’t quite possess the venom that Mitchell Starc spits but have something that Doctor Strange desires.
As Cummins steams into the crease, his shoulder stays put and the ball seemingly looks to head towards the leg-side. Pujara, at the other end, has his bat in place, outside the off-stump for the defence. Yet somehow, in between all of this, the right-arm pacer finds a mystical space - withering his magical physical presence and his outwitting encephalon to unearth the magic to leave everyone spell-bound. Be it Adelaide, Sydney or Perth, the two bowlers have always found magical ways to go past Pujara’s wall.
Remember Sachin’s 241, it was the pinnacle of mind games, but in 2020-21, Cummins and Hazlewood found numerous ways to outwit the wall that brought down the Australian charge. Cummins adds a layer, Hazlewood tops another and in between the two layers, is Pujara who has thrived there as the best. The battle seemingly looks boring to the eyes of the modern pleasures but for the classics that have unwavering passion towards Test cricket, it is what dreams are made of.
“Edged, gone! Hazlewood does it. That's a cracker, in the channel at off stump, the ball that has done for Pujara a few times this series. Angles in at off stump then straightens a fraction. Not much he could have done. Huge moment,” read ESPNCricinfo’s commentary after Hazlewood’s delivery to dismiss Pujara.
Angles in, beats him outside the off-stump, Australia have yet again stuck by their plan. But more importantly, it concluded yet another battle for ages between the two. Cummins vs Pujara; Hazlewood vs Pujara, the theme remains the same - Pujara gets the best of the Australian bowlers and the entire setup, makes for the best ambassador for Test cricket. Battle won!