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The Unfortunately Talented Cheteshwar Pujara

The biggest argument against Pujara’s inclusion in the team is Rohit’s aggression. That clearly shows that Kohli and Ravi Shastri have a sense of humour.

Cheteshwar Pujara reacts on reaching his century in the 3rd Test against Sri Lanka

Cheteshwar Pujara is the cricketer’s version of a nerd with a wobbly knee. He looks awkward while chasing balls on the outfield. You can hear his knees creak sometimes when he turns for that risky second run. He has never recovered fully from the crash landing he gave his knee during an IPL match years ago, a match he had no business playing; not because he is not good enough for the IPL, but because he is way too precious to be lost to IPL.

IPL is an employment opportunity for a lot of players. As entertaining as it is, it is not a place for future legends. Pujara is not a legend, not even a hero yet. But he smells of one. For starters, he has inherited Dravid’s burden and bad luck. He is the geek stuck amidst playboys.

Pujara doesn’t belong to this world, batting with a dominant bottom hand, holding the bat like he was taught at a very young age by a coach, scoffing himself for not moving the feet well enough, punishing himself every time he puts flash before the team with more hours in the net. Glamour is not for him. It is the birth-right of some of his flashier teammates.

He sticks to fundamentals, so rigidly he evokes frustration in lesser mortals with scant regard for principles and fundamentals. Pujara is the cricketer’s version of a nerd with a wobbly knee. But, god that knee can take some weight!

The ‘comeback’ man

The comeback man is as silly a moniker as The Cinderella Man for a boxer who fought through starvation and global economic depression. It sounds sillier when used for a player who is currently playing his 28th match. But, he has already made more comebacks than Big B has in movies. Pujara’s debut itself is a comeback of sorts.

Unlike his present skipper, Pujara had to go through Test cricket’s hard grind before getting his cap. He was not one of those players who was picked as soon as he showed he was good enough. He was one of those who was picked when the selectors had no choice but to pick him.

He averages 56.21 at First Class level with 29 centuries. Only Ajinkya Rahane averages more amongst the current crop, only just.

Pujara played his first match-winning knock in his first Test, a gritty 72 chasing a tricky target at Bangalore against Australia. In his next match, he showed his temperament in Durban. Sadly scoreboards don’t have a temperament quotient. Public memories are worse. Pujara played two Tests in South Africa.

After Jan 2011, he would play his next Test, his fourth in August 2012. The Indian middle order was like the general compartment of Indian trains. No room to even move an elbow. But, what does he do on comeback? Scores 159 against New Zealand at Hyderabad, much like the century he has scored now against Sri Lanka playing his first game after eight months.

His game

The problem with good boys is that they are predictable. Pujara is a good boy, probably a boy scout. He is almost as predictable as Dravid, although we shouldn’t compare anyone to Dravid. Not yet, definitely.

But Pujara has those ‘predictable’ traits. In the first 50 balls he faces, he guards his wicket like Voldemort guarded his soul in horcruxes. It has to be a good ball that gets him out, he won’t throw it away. After a fifty, he starts freeing up on all pitches, like the classical introvert who shows you his thoughts and fantasies once he knows you well. After a hundred, he wants a daddy hundred. He is not the one to think the job is over as soon as he gets to 100.

Pujara doesn’t have the silken drive of Kohli or Rohit. He has Dravid’s impeccably correct drive, the coaching manual drive. He doesn’t have Kohli’s whip off the pads, but a lovely flick. He has a ferocious cut and an impulsive pull and hook. On most days, he can play around the clock, around the park, sometimes all along the ground. On most days, he can score runs without being noticed.

It is a pity that he had to emphasize to Deep Dasgupta, the interviewer, that ‘he doesn’t have a strike-rate problem, if one were to check the facts.’ He is right, but he doesn’t know that people don’t carry fact books or stat-books with them. Just impressions. Short-lived, easily formed impressions.

Pujara, unfortunately for him, is an unimpressionable cricketer. You want that in your No.3. The frustrating stone that won’t budge. Not the beautifully carved, sculpted structure that has a dozen weak points where one can chip away. Kohli and Ravi Shastri still fancy graffiti laden, pop culture walls. Kohli is the ‘Don’t stick bills, pure white’ wall that is boring on most days. Boring works fine for No.3.  

His career

Pujara now has 7 centuries and 6 half-centuries in 48 innings. He has two double centuries. No one else has even one in the current squad – Dhawan, Vijay, Kohli, Rahane, Rohit, Rahul – none. His career has had a weird path.

  1. Before he was dropped for the final Test against Australia in Australia, his scores were 73, 21, 18, 43, 25, 21. There is just one half-century there, but hardly looks like a player out of form.
  2. It counted against him that his scores in England prior to the Australia series were poor – 38, 55, 28, 43, 24, 2, 0, 17, 4 and 11. Like Rahul Dravid pointed out to him, he was not as vulnerable as his scores showed. Yet, somehow he managed to get that one big one that could have saved his place.
  3. If you go one series further back, he had scores of 1, 23, 19 and 17 in New Zealand.
  4. One step further back, he has scores of 20, 153, 70 and 32 in South Africa.

Clearly, he has no trouble with pace or bounce as his scores in South Africa and Australia suggest. But, he has trouble when the ball moves laterally, like the scores in England and New Zealand suggest. However, those seven Tests costing his place feels unfair at times when you see that not many except Vijay and Rahane did well in the England series.

So, Pujara’s career had a great 2012 and 2013 where he averaged 82 and 75 across 14 Tests and a below average 2014 where he averaged just 24, a number used against him.

Comparisons with contemporary Indian batsmen

The Indian team is generally known for the long ropes some of the players get. Pujara got his chances. Funnily though, he didn’t have to fail terribly to be shown the door, which is really surprising. For example, the logic used to give Dhawan an opening slot in sub-continental Tests should give Pujara a waltz into the team.

Pujara’s overall numbers vis-à-vis his generation of batsmen is impressive.

Over the last three years at home, these are the numbers.

 

Test innings

Runs

Average

Strike-Rate

100/50s

Pujara

18

1044

74.57

54.03

4/2

Kohli

17

686

49

47.34

3/3

Vijay

9

499

55.44

49.75

2/1

The other batsmen with more than 10 innings at home in the last three years – Ashwin, Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dhoni are not relevant anymore and none have a comparable average to Pujara anyway. One should also note the strike-rate of Pujara vis-à-vis Kohli’s.

Away from home, over the last three years, these are the numbers.

 

Test innings

Runs

Average

Strike-Rate

100/50s

Pujara

25

898

37.41

43.99

2/3

Kohli

32

1538

49.61

58.67

7/4

Rahane

31

1341

47.89

56.82

4/7

Rohit

22

532

25.33

45.94

0/3

Dhawan

23

915

39.78

58.39

3/2

Vijay

29

1312

45.24

46.00

3/8

When you take a look at Pujara’s overall numbers and compare, there are a few things worth noting – average, strike-rate and 50-100 conversion rate. Mind you, Pujara’s numbers will improve drastically when his latest innings numbers are added.

 

Test innings

Runs

Average

Strike-Rate

100/50s

Pujara

48

2073

47.11

49.25

6/6

Kohli

64

2755

45.91

53.52

11/11

Rahane

32

1341

46.24

56.55

4/7

Rohit

23

794

37.80

52.20

2/3

Dhawan

26

1158

44.53

64.22

4/2

Vijay

58

2420

41.72

47.34

6/11

The table tells the tale of how Pujara deserves not a rope but trust. India still doesn’t have the all-rounder that could fulfil Kohli’s five bowler fantasy wish. That means Kohli needs at least one batsman who could grind the opposition down in case the chips fall down. Pujara showed how he adds value even in a five-batsman team by ensuring that on days like Day 2 of the 3rd Test when no one else gets going, he can still put a price on his wicket.

The tough runs

The biggest argument against Pujara’s inclusion in the team is Rohit’s aggression. That clearly shows that Kohli and Ravi Shastri have a sense of humour. But, then when did humour ever win us games or Rohit for that matter? Unpredictable talent is beautiful to watch, without doubt. But predictability has served India well for more than a decade in the form of Dravid.

A position as sacrosanct as No.3 should therefore best be left for someone who can maintain the tradition. Pujara averages 45 in the fourth innings and 77.5 in the first. He averages only 34.4 which will improve with his 15th Test away from home thanks to the ton, but he could be the binder needed especially when India open with Shikhar Dhawan and have Kohli coming in at No.4.

Pujara is a cricketer’s version of a nerd, with a wobbly knee. But, he has the look of a man who knows what it is to fight the bulldog’s fight, the scrappy struggle for the last yard, the Al Pacino-character style clawing-for-every-inch fight. Even if he doesn’t dashingly win you matches, he will ensure you don’t lose. Sometimes, like on Day 2 of the third Test that is more than enough to get applause even from the opponents, which he did, like a boss!

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