To paraphrase blatantly the words of Jon Landau, the music critic turned record producer who prophesized about Bruce Springsteen in 1974, I have just seen the future of Indian Test cricket – and his name is Cheteshwar Pujara.
OK, so it's not the first time Pujara was batting in Test cricket and his promise has been known for some time. But to watch the 24-year-old walk to the crease – well, it was more like a lope, not quite upright and with something gawky about his stride – and take guard at one-down and then bat the remainder of the day for a maiden Test century was to experience something soothing. Not soothing in the manner in which you sip a really special cup of coffee or bury your face in a warm towel just out of the drier, but in a manner that calmed the nerves. This was, after all, a seminal day in Indian cricket history. After 16 years, India were playing a Test without the presence of either Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman, and the man tipped to carry the baton into the somewhat gloomy future was making a comeback to the team after a long absence.
When the team sheets were flashed on TV, it was Virat Kohli listed at No. 3. But it soon became clear that Pujara would be walking out at the fall of the first wicket, when he was seen sitting padded up. When he did walk out, following Gautam Gambhir's exit for 22 off the last ball of the tenth over, Pujara did so with purpose. He had not played for India since January 2011, but it was not evident in his approach at the crease.
It was a triumphant day for Pujara, who carried India through their first-day nerves to ensure that they reached stumps in a formidable position.
Martin Crowe once remarked that the hallmark of a fine batsman was head position, footwork, balance and playing late. Pujara ticked all four boxes. He was composed, standing upright to the fast bowlers and getting on top of spin. He was not panicky, and neither did he look to assert himself. When he pushed forward, the feet were in the correct place. When he went back, it was with precision. Pujara looked in complete control. He rode the short stuff, even showing a propensity to hook and pull, and only made room to cut Jeetan Patel once he had gotten a start. It was almost a minimalistic innings from Pujara, giving respect where it was due and scoring runs in a risk-free manner for the most.
After New Zealand had prized out Gambhir and Virender Sehwag, India needed solidity. And so Pujara knuckled down in precisely the manner a No. 3 should. By the time Sachin Tendulkar was bowled for 19, 48 runs had been added and Pujara was 28. With Kohli came the partnership of the day. The initiative was taken back from New Zealand, and a platform was set. Pujara set himself up, got his eye in, built on the start. He was watchful and full of common sense, but never hesitated to put away the bad balls either, which Doug Bracewell and Kane Williamson in particular served up plenty of. Cut, drive, flick, pull. If it was in his slot, whichever of the four it may be, Pujara put it away; if not, he defended of left alone. No fuss.
Impressively, he did not slow as he neared his century. In the half hour after tea, something changed. The feet started to move quicker, and shots that had previously found the inner circle began flying away through the gaps. In 36 balls, Pujara clattered 41 runs to move to within a shot of three figures. The rush came in Trent Boult's first over, in which there were three boundaries, each off the back foot and each better than the previous. The score sped past 200 and it was just what India needed to keep the pressure on.
When he did get to his century, with a glance off the pads, the release of emotions was palpable and further endearing. Pujara must have waited ages for this, much more than the actual gap in days from when he last played for India and today. The injury, the drop in confidence, the patience. He could breathe a little easier now.
Pujara will face days much, much tougher than this. He knows that, having played that 72 on the final day in Bangalore and being tested by Dale Steyn in South Africa. His big challenge will come when he plays better bowlers in tough conditions. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steven Finn will test him far more later this year than New Zealand's quartet of fast men did today.
But in scoring a half-century on debut and now a century in his comeback Test, Pujara has already demonstrated a temperament that is as tough as teak. Just as Dravid used to play it cool, so Pujara found that, if in doubt, the patient approach is generally the most virtuous. By stumps, the simplicity of his batting and the dividends of his accumulation were plain to see. He just looked like he belonged at Test level. It was a triumphant day for Pujara, who carried India through their first-day nerves to ensure that they reached stumps in a formidable position.
Amid pressure to deliver and plenty of expectancy about his abilities to fill Dravid's boots, Pujara's century was a defining century in more ways than one. The future isn't so gloomy.