Cheteshwar Pujara: Steadfast soldier

Cricket

With his ability to focus for long durations, Cheteshwar Pujara has frustrated the Australian bowler. AFP

Just crunch these numbers: 1800 minutes, 1258 deliveries and 521 runs. Take them out of equation and India will just be about the half the side in terms of their impact that they have had on the series against Australia. That’s how dominant Cheteshwar Pujara has been to India’s fortunes. His centuries on the difficult and vastly different Adelaide and Melbourne pitches gave India two wins, putting them 2-1 ahead before the final Test. And his Sidney masterpiece, a spirit-crushing 193 on easily the best batting pitch of the series, has all but ensured that India will script their maiden series victory on the Australian soil since they travelled Down Under for the first time in 1947.

If the 2014-15 series in Australia saw Virat Kohli’s coming-of-age as a Test batsman, the 2018-19 duel will go down as the Pujara series. The Saurashtra batsman hasn’t smashed the Australian attack into submission. He has instead smothered it softly. Where Kohli is like a skier, Pujara is more of a mountaineer who rather savours the fruit of a hard grind than the attention from a flashy, fast spectacle. And if the pitch is more of an Everest than an Alps, you need Pujara the mountaineer more than Kohli the skier as this series has proven. On such pitches, you need to build your innings brick by brick rather than blast your way through. You need to swallow your ego and respect the conditions. The fact that even Kohli had to adopt Pujara-style of batting in this series to find success is an acknowledgement of the Saurashtra batsman’s value.

Josh Hazlewood’s statement that he valued Pujara’s wicket more than Kohli’s may have raised a few eyebrows, but the Aussie paceman wouldn’t be too happy to see his prophecy come true so emphatically as the trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Hazlewood has copped all-round criticism.

Pujara’s game doesn’t appeal to your aesthetic senses. It’s laborious and you probably won’t pay to watch him. On occasions, he may draw more yawns than the number of runs he scores, but he gets your job done. The game does need the Laras and the Tendulkars but without the Chanderpauls and the Dravids – the latter was quite an attractive player when in flow, though -- they won’t be half as effective. Similarly, Kohli needs the calming effect of a Pujara. He is the man who will absorb all the pressure and he is the rock around which the stroke-makers flourish.

“He has been a lot more flexible in altering his game very quickly,” Kohli said when asked about the change in fortunes of Pujara, who had to be dropped for the final Test in Sydney the last time. “From the last time he played in Australia, he has made a few changes to his set-up, and that’s working for him. He is embracing the fact that if something has been told to him and he has to work on those things, he has worked on it. And now we have the bowling attack that we can rely on to get us 20 wickets and his role becomes even more crucial.

“If he can bat time and hold one end, and all the other batsmen can bat positively around him, we get 350, touching 400, in conditions in Australia, which puts us in a great position to get a result. He realises that even more now. Because of the bowling attack that we have, his job is to hold one end and bat for long hours so that we have a great opportunity to get big runs and put them (the opponents) out of the game. I think that confidence that is seen is because of it and he is embracing that very well,” the Indian skipper offered.

Australia must be sick of Pujara’s sight in the middle. He has teased and tormented them, and he has grounded their attack down. At the start of the series, Kohli may have been their most prized scalp but as the series has progressed, Pujara has emerged as the most valued wicket. “With Pujara, if you’re not swinging the ball, he’s extremely hard to get out,” noted Australia skipper Tim Paine. “Early in the innings you’re trying to hit his stumps and his pad. In the form he’s in, he’s not missing too many. When the wicket is like it is and you can’t swing the ball, not many players miss them. He’s been really patient and disciplined around his off stump. He’s ground our bowlers down. We tried to bounce him. We’ve tried lots of different things. He’s faced about a million balls this series. We’ve tried wide of the stumps, at the stumps, Nathan Lyon’s been over and around (the stumps), I don’t think there are too many things we haven’t tried, and he’s been too good for us,” he praised.

Since 1971, only Alastair Cook has faced more deliveries in a series in Australia than Pujara’s 1258, and among Indians, only Rahul Dravid has played more balls in a series – 1336 in the series against England in 2002 – than his successor at No 3. Pujara was always touted as the worthy heir to the famous Bengalurean and the 30-year-old has never been more convincing in that role than on this tour.

Sometime in 2017, it needed the public backing of the then coach Anil Kumble when Pujara was receiving a lot of flak for his slow strike rate with the former Indian captain stating, “from my point pf view, strikes rates are only relevant to bowlers in Test cricket, not batsmen,” and resting the case of his ward. Pujara has scored at a strike rate of 41.41 in this series, which is considerably slower than his career’s 46.27. This time, however, this trait of his batting is being hailed as his greatest virtue. And that may just be Pujara’s greatest contribution yet to Test cricket – providing a fresh lease of life to old-school batting.

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Cheteshwar Pujara: Steadfast soldier

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