It takes very little for form to escape. It could be a shot played because of form. Form built brick by brick, innings after innings, match after match, series after series, sometimes in the playing XI, sometimes, on the bench.
When playing, it sometimes takes 20s to become 30s to become 20s again to become a place on the bench again. Even if the score sheet refuses to ignore minutes burnt at the crease, selection can be a lot more unforgiving.
It took Cheteshwar Pujara six innings to score his first Test century. Three more to score his first double century. Another three and he had three Test centuries. Seven more innings and he had his second double. Six more innings and he had five centuries. In 16 Tests, Pujara had scored six Test centuries.
Walk in the park
Test cricket was a walk in a Rajkot park for Pujara.
Then something happened. It took Pujara 22 more innings to go from that sixth Test century to the elusive seventh. During which time, he toured South Africa, New Zealand, England, Australia, Sri Lanka.
Five of Pujara’s first six Test centuries were scored in India, the sixth, in South Africa. After that, he was in and out of the team. Sometimes to accommodate Rohit Sharma, sometimes to accommodate unfathomable strike rates.
After not being picked for the first two Tests against Sri Lanka, Pujara played in the third in Colombo. He opened the innings, he batted through the innings, he scored his seventh Test hundred.
In the next 14 innings, Pujara did not score another century. The 20s and 30s were back. India was playing away again, after being picked for the first two Tests against West Indies, Pujara made way for Rohit Sharma.
Back home against New Zealand, India played six batsmen, picking both Pujara and Sharma. The 20s and 30s were becoming 60s and 70s, even an 80.
Hundred No. 8 happened in Indore. And just like that No. 9 and No. 10 happened. That too with a six. In addition to legspin, Adil Rashid had a new specialty: bowling filth to Pujara. Filth that begged, “Spank me, bad boy, spank me, hard”. Even straight-faced Pujara couldn’t resist.
Pujara’s Test average was floating above 50. Rashid was floating ‘em to Pujara. Pujara was afloat.
That troublesome strike rate had been sorted, Pujara was scoring just as fast as Virat Kohli, at times, even faster. What could possibly go wrong?
Adil Rashid bowled more filth. To Pujara, again. It was repeated that Mohali was a much bigger ground than Visakhapatnam. It wasn’t said that Adil Rashid had changed Pujara the batsman. One who had barely hit half a dozen sixes in close to 40 Tests, was looking to airlift far too many bad balls.
Or perhaps Anil Bhai had changed Pujara by instilling more intent in him. Whatever it was, Pujara was no longer Pujara, he had decided to throw caution, Rashid, the ball that Rashid bowled, and himself to the wind.
Pujara had decided to live a little. And for that had to die a little.
The filth that Rasheed bowled to Pujara planted itself in Woakes’s hands. And with it, his fourth century in four Tests went missing.
In the second innings, Pujara padded away a ball pitching way outside leg from Rashid only to play an almost identical delivery – holding out to Root. 51 in the first, 25 in the second, had the 20s and 30s started again?
What does it take for them to start? Where does a batsman’s decline begin? How long till Pujara’s next century. It’s only three innings. But after three centuries in four innings, why let up? It’s a long home season. Rohit is recuperating. India doesn’t play six batsmen anymore.
Pujara should know better than most, it takes very little for form to escape. It will when it has to, it always does. Just don’t help it get away. Hold on to it, like you hold that bat, brandish it like a sword between deliveries, and swear to fight for it. For form may not be a lady, but it can still be pretty damn fickle.