When Rahul Dravid hung his willow for good, there were loud cries about India’s vacuum at no.3. Undoubtedly, Dravid was a colossus and his replacement, if any, had to be a guardian of sorts. At a time when Test cricket found itself increasingly threatened by the mindlessness of wham-bam T20 cricket, championing as a premier Test batsman for India was an onerous task.
And in the context of the enormous popularity and expectations of cricket in India, an overwhelming one. But one man seemed up for it.
Debuting in 2010 and having shared the dressing room initially with ‘The Wall’, Cheteshwar Pujara almost seemed like a Dravid double. Strong bottom-hand technique and monk-like powers of concentration, he seemed to practice sagely abstinence from tampering with the ball outside off, building his innings much like Dravid- find the bad ball and capitalize, grind bowlers to dust.
In the immediate aftermath of Dravid’s retirement, Pujara strengthened his case for India’s new no.3 with 2 double hundreds. Currently, his report card seems to have fared well. He has crossed 3000 Test runs already well before reaching 50 tests. In fact he’s garnered a fantastic record in a brief career that shines on a batting average sailing north of 51, helped by 10 hundreds and as many fifties.
He has also faced early challenges in his career, having braved a blow of sorts- being axed for a poor England series in 2014 where Anderson and Broad then took the Mickey out of him. But he came back strong in 2015 at Colombo, in Sangakkara’s swansong. His fighting 145, where he carried his bat helped India win a memorable test. His problems with the rising in-coming delivery seemed sorted. He was defiant against Pradeep, Mathews and Kausal. Long sessions in the nets aided by promising Ranji performances seemed to have helped his technical glitches.
But life has been tough for Pujara, a bit needlessly too.
Right after 2016 West Indies series, where Pujara struck no hundred, let alone a promising fifty, mercurial captain Kohli advised him to gather his runs quickly. That upping his strike rate would help his career was opined everywhere. As always, the media joined the chorus and we saw the emergence of the “Pujara strike rate question”.
But that poses a series of different albeit relatable questions
Do the runs plundered on flat tracks in the sub-continent (unless you’re playing in Australia or South Africa) that lead to mammoth team totals require a premier batsman with classical technique to alter his game?
Furthermore, Is the T20 culture somewhere weighing heavy on the psyche of the Indian fan, including that of captain Kohli, who is so much of a product of firebrand cricket?
Knowing well that Pujara is a different creature, a throwback to a yesteryear era, someone who takes a bit of time to settle in before he gets going, Test purists would have surely wondered was this a foul-cry?
Ever the reticent lad, Pujara decided to pay heed to the advice and adapted his game accordingly. But he must have wondered what on earth his strike rate, that always measure in 50 or plus, would have done to hamper India?
His recent stats on strike-rate
Before Vizag, he collected 515 from 8 innings, 2 hundreds included- each against the Kiwis and the English. 4 of his 10 hundreds have come in 2016.
Kanpur: 62 off 109 came at 57 and 78 off 152 at 51. Kolkata: When Kohli departed at 46-3, he dug in big. By the time his top score of 87 off 219 was crafted, India were steady at 187-4. But none questioned him about facing over 200 deliveries? After all, that was what was needed for India.
He moved on to emerge as the top scorer at Indore, courtesy a fluent 101 of 148 balls. He even danced down the track to Boult and left Santner scratching his head. Strike rate? 68.
But was this change really needed?
If runs are coming consistently from his bat, why should Pujara up the scoring ante? If he wouldn’t have held on to an end at Vizag on November 17 when India were 22-2 and went for needless hits to ‘up his scoring ante’ wouldn’t he lose his wicket?
Let’s not forget, the task of the crucial no.3 when there’s a loss of early wickets at the very top, is to stick on, dig an inexhaustible well of concentration and then consolidate the scoring rate. That is what Pujara did at Kanpur when the top order was crumbling and when India were reeling at 46-3 at Kolkata with Kohli dismissed.
To his delight and to the chagrin of his doubters, he has scored 3 hundreds on the trot, continuing his good form versus New Zealand against England. There are 7 more innings to go, where chances are, if India lose top order cheaply and captain Kohli buckles under pressure, Pujara would once again be required to ‘stay there’.
That is perhaps what he has been doing, sans the ups and downs he’s battled and emerged over in his hitherto brief career. To absorb pressure and emerge tall in crisis is a responsibility he cherishes. No he isn’t gifted with the fluency of Kane Williamson or the flair of Kohli or Smith.
He is Cheteshwar Pujara, a dependable bat who accepts a crisis situation with glee. As long as he is scoring consistently, he should be left alone. We should spare him the needless probing.