There Aren’t Many Cheteshwar Pujaras And There’s a Reason Why
Cheteshwar Pujara’s innings may not have been match-winning but they were what led to India winning matches.
(This story was first published after India’s Border-Gavaskar series win over Australia in January, 2021. It is being republished on the occasion of Cheteshwar Pujara’s birthday on 15 January, 2021)
This Pujara guy is too slow. Why is he still in the team? Does he even know how to hit a boundary? This is not cricket of the fifties. It does not work anymore. He is wasting deliveries. Not moving the game forward. We should replace Pujara with someone like KL Rahul or a batsman with more intent. Why can't he score quickly?
And, so on...
Through the attritional four-match Test series between India and Australia, Cheteshwar Pujara faced all this criticism to go along with the nasty bumpers to finish as the second-highest run-scorer for India, facing 928 deliveries on the way. The next most deliveries faced by an Indian batsman was by stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane at 562.
If not for Pujara's vigil, where do you think the series would have ended?
India do have many free-flowing stroke-makers like Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant, but they have only one Pujara.
When India had their backs against the wall in the 3rd Test match at Sydney, most remember the resolve with which two injured souls Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin batted out 258 deliveries to ward off the danger, but how about the 205 deliveries that Cheteshwar Pujara chewed up by himself? Again, in Brisbane, India were able to go for the win because they did not fall in a heap on the morning of day 5 on a quick and bouncy pitch with plenty of cracks for the Australian trio of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc to exploit.
In the second innings of the Gabba Test, Pujara faced as many as 211 deliveries to blunt the Australian attack. The reason why Hazlewood and Starc gave away a few freebies in their fourth and fifth spells is because Pujara ensured that there were a lot of miles in the legs of the already-tired pace bowlers, who had had to bowl more than 100 overs in each of the last four innings coming into the final day of the Gabba Test.
Much as Pujara had a role to play in that, batting out one vicious delivery after another on the last day of the series, he did the same throughout the four Test matches.
Understandably, what meets the eye is the runs. The stylish pull off the front foot from Rohit Sharma or a punch through covers from Shubman Gill looks a million dollars, but a push here and a prod there from Cheteshwar Pujara doesn't seem that classy, does it?
Test match batting is as much about the batting time as it is about scoring runs. The art of wearing the opposition bowlers down and then cashing in may not be in vogue anymore and you might struggle to find another batsman in the mould of Cheteshwar Pujara not only in India but around the world, but it does not take anything away from the craft of Test match batting that brought success to umpteen players over centuries.
Runs are important, for sure. Taking the game forward is essential, without doubt. But, batting time is just as crucial.
All right, even if you want to concentrate on the tangibles, Pujara finished the recently concluded Test series with 271 runs from eight innings at an average of 33.87 and strike rate of 29.20. This might not seem an awful lot but in a series where there was dogfight for every single run, Pujara ultimately finished just three runs shy of India's top-scorer Rishabh Pant.
Faces a lot of balls, does he? The method doesn't seem quite right, does it? Well, it was the same method which brought him truckloads of runs on India's last tour of Australia which the visitors went on to win by 2-1 as well. In that series, Pujara finished as the highest run-scorer across both teams with 521 runs at 74.42, having faced 1,258 deliveries, which pushed the Australian bowlers to their limits.
In any battle, charging on the opposition with your sophisticated ammunition is key, but it is equally significant to guard your fort from frequent incursions. This is exactly the role that Pujara plays for Team India.
Think of the number of blows that he wore on his body on the last day of the Gabba Test. The guy was hit on the thighs, on the head, on the forearm and was sprayed with several bouncers which did not rise as high and struck him on the fingers, which mind you were already in terrible shape with him having copped several blows in the nets in the lead-up to the final Test match.
What Pujara deserves is not abuse but utmost respect for not only taking all the criticism like a gentleman but also putting his body on the line for an Indian victory for the ages. When volleys were hurled at him during press conferences about his tempo, all he kept saying was 'I can only bat in the way I know best'.
The method bore fruit at the Gabba as he allowed the likes of Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill to rally around him.
The meaning of intent or aggression can be very subjective. If stepping out of the crease to lift the ball over the bowler's head is aggression, wearing thunderbolts at 145 kph on your body and not wincing is also nothing short of it.
One of India's greatest sons, Rahul Dravid finished his Test career after 164 matches, scoring 13,288 runs at a strike rate of 42.51. Pujara seems to be at the halfway mark with 6,111 runs from 81 matches at a strike rate of 45.02. The 32-year-old recently became the sixth-fastest Indian batsman to 6,000 Test runs and also broke into the list of India's top 10 highest run-scorers of all-time.
If you appreciate the batsmanship of Dravid, do appreciate the defiance of the new Wall, whose story is unfolding right before our eyes. Because in the world of IPL stars, it is easy to neglect virtues like perseverance and unflinching resolve.
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