Pujara makes a statement from the shadows

Madhu Jawali, March 22, 2017, Ranchi, DHNS

Pujara makes a statement from the shadows

 A few months after assuming Test captaincy, Virat Kohli had said, “To be successful, to be consistent, you have to be boring.” He might as well have been talking about Cheteshwar Pujara’s batting then.

Let’s reflect on Pujara’s performance in the last seven months or so. He is the highest run-getter this season, pipping Kohli to the top spot during the course of the longest innings by an Indian batsman here in the third Test against Australia. If you combine his performance in this domestic first-class cricket with his Test show (see table), he becomes the first Indian batsman to top 2000 runs in a home season. His average in Tests, starting from the series against New Zealand to the third Test against Australia, stands at 66.26 which is even better than Kohli’s (65.89). And with four centuries against five visiting teams this season, he has proved his consistency as well.

On the other hand Kohli, India’s most prolific run-getter till the start of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy late last month, has endured five failures in as many innings. His aggregate of 46 runs in the ongoing series against the Aussies is a far cry from the tally he had in the previous nine home Tests -- 1206 runs at an astonishing average of 86.14. Since then, his average has slipped below 66. Yet, there are more concerns being expressed about Kohli’s lack of runs than appreciating words being said about Pujara’s prolific march. But then that’s the lot of players in the Pujara mould.

They are not flamboyant and hence don’t stick in people’s minds for too long. Their fame is momentary after every big performance but every failure has lingering negative effect. Just before the start of the series against New Zealand last year, Pujara was facing existential crisis. He could get a place in the 11 only if India were to go in with four bowlers. Inevitably, that place went to the flashier Rohit Sharma, who nicely “fitted” in the team’s scheme of things.

It’s difficult to imagine if Pujara would have been as motivated to perform the way he has been doing if not for the guidance of head coach Anil Kumble whose backing has been uplifting for him. On more than one occasion he has gone on record, acknowledging Kumble’s support and calming influence when his confidence had taken a big hit after being tossed in and tossed out of the team.

“You know, sometimes, I really feel bad for him,” Kohli said about Pujara. “People don’t understand his importance so much in this team and what a valuable player he is for us. He is the most composed player we have in the team, he is willing to grind for his runs, he doesn’t mind batting under pressure. He likes to take the challenge of batting… So someone like that is priceless to have in the team,” he praised. 

One of the major complaints against Pujara was his unflattering strike rate. This is where Rohit had scored over the Saurashtra batsman. While Pujara has made a conscious effort to improve his strike rate, it’s his grinding quality that saved the day for India in Ranchi. Before the start of Australia series, Pujara’s strike rate had gone up to nearly 52 per 100 balls compared to his career’s 48.10. It has now dipped under 51 after two patient but significant innings in Bengaluru and Ranchi. While the 221-ball 92 had set up India’s victory in the second Test, his 525-ball 202 had put India in a winning position.     

Though maintaining higher strike rate is important in modern day Test cricket, bats as he does in No 3 position, Pujara should be given the freedom to play his natural game. You need someone who is willing to look boring and not bother about his image so that the more flamboyant stroke-makers flourish around him. Does this remind you of certain Rahul Dravid?

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