Pujara's missing mojo

The big-scoring right-hander needs to soak up the pressure

Pujara's missing mojo

Jubilatory mood had turned the Indian dressing room into a revelers club soon after their historic win over England at Lord’s. But one man suddenly broke away from the merriments, walked into the centre wearing a grim expression for a quick session of knockdown.

It looked so contradicting to the occasion. But Cheteshwar Pujara had every reason to feel unhappy. For a man who loves to leave his mark on the big stage, Pujara’s contribution to that win was marginal – 28 and 43.

But that was only half the story. At Trent Bridge, Pujara had set himself up nicely for a big knock in both the innings – 38 off 69 balls and 55 off 101 balls – but two tentative shots off James Anderson and Liam Plunkett cut his stay short. It was a rare sight to see Pujara missing out on a ‘Daddy Hundred’ after reaching that far in his innings.

At Southampton, Pujara couldn’t move his hand away in time from the path of a short-pitched delivery that brushed his gloves en route to stumper Jos Buttler. Offie Moeen Ali drew him forward to find an edge in the second innings at the Ageas Bowl. 

So, there’s no pattern in Pujara’s dismissals so far here, and the England bowlers have not worked on any specific weakness like they seemed to have done against Virat Kohli, drying up the chance to play his primary run-making shots like the cover drive.

Pujara’s case is quite simple. He is not converting the starts into a more substantial innings like he often does. His life away from home began in splendid fashion. Pujara made his presence felt in South Africa against an attack that boasts of Dale Steyn, amassing 280 runs from four innings at average of 70. 

His 153 in the second innings at Johannesburg was an epic knock that nearly gave India a victory. It also promised a blockbuster away leg, but he faltered at the next stop – New Zealand.

He managed a meager 60 runs from four innings at 15 (highest 23) in the Antipodean, and the barren run continued in England. Starting from South Africa, Pujara has made 530 runs from seven Tests at 37.80 with a solitary hundred. 

In isolation that is not a bad record, but quite inadequate for someone who comes in at as vital a position as number three. His failures have become even more glaring because Shikhar Dhawan, one half of the opening combination, and Kohli, who walks in at number four, have not made much runs on this tour. 

It certainly is not an easy position to be in, and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni hoped that the trend would be broken soon. “It will become a bit of a concern once it becomes repetitive. Let’s hope that it doesn’t become a habit. But the good thing is that the batsmen are getting good starts, and hopefully they will convert those starts into big innings. Getting start is more difficult than converting starts,” said Dhoni.

Pujara, perhaps, is a slave of his own anxieties and expectations. He might be putting a lot of pressure on himself to get a big score away from home. The number three slot in Indian batting line-up will forever have the stamp of Rahul Dravid on it. No other Indian batsman had done better than Dravid in overseas conditions, and it is quite natural if his successor at that pivotal berth wants to live up to the standard.  

Soaking up the pressure – external and internal – at all conditions is vital for a batsman coming at number three because he needs to play a variety of roles according to the match situation. Let’s listen from the master himself on how to do it.

“You need to know how to switch off mentally and not get exhausted mentally before a match. It is as important as your preparation for a match. It is quite important if you want to succeed at the international level. Yes, you need technique and right kind of preparation but being mentally at the right space too is as important,” said Dravid in one of his talk shows on a cricket website.

Perhaps, his mind is cram­med with disquiet thoughts. Perhaps, he is pursuing a big score, which has eluded him for 11 innings, like a desperate gold-digger. Will we see a more liberated Pujara at Old Trafford?