The image of Cheteshwar Pujara flat on the ground after falling short of his crease is one that will be hard for many to dismiss long after the series against South Africa has ended. The first time it happened, Pujara just lay there, head buried in the ground. He didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity
They dismissed it as anxiousness to get off the mark. Some put it down to intent and others still said that you don’t expect a fast bowler like Lungi Ngidi to hit the stumps directly. Fine, mistakes happen.
Then, it happened again. Cheteshwar Pujara run-out, twice in one Test. Let that sink in.
“He’s not just slow, he’s ultra slow,” bemoaned West Indian great Michael Holding in commentary as Pujara became only the first Indian to be run-out in each innings of a Test.
Coach Ravi Shastri pouted in disbelief and assistant coach Sanjay Bangar maintained a stoic, expressionless face as the third umpire gave the decision. It was curtains for India’s chances in the match. A diving Pujara had once again fallen short of the crease. It wasn’t the only thing he had fallen short of; he had fallen short of his captain’s expectations; he had fallen short of his own expectations and he had fallen short of the expectations of the Indian cricket fans.
But this wasn’t the Pujara India knows and has come to appreciate. He usually bats calmly. He bats for time. He does his own thing. He shows his different kind of intent from Kohli and most importantly, he scores runs.
But on Day 5 with the match in balance, he set off for a suicidal third. One is tempted to ask, ‘Why?’
Other than Kohli, Pujara was India’s next best bet to farm the strike and hold the batting line-up together during what was set to be a challenging series. He has done in before in South Africa no less. But so far, it seems as if he has paid the price of muddled intent.
Pujara’s greatest strength is that he has a clear head. He has a method and it works. He doesn’t worry about scoring rates or a few maiden overs. He wears down the opposition attacks with a dead bat. He is difficult to dislodge and the opposition recognises and understands the threat he poses.
But imagine the same guy setting off for a quick single off the very first ball he faces. Was this his game? Was this the prudent move? Was this the need of the hour?
Kohli keeps harping on intent and aggression, but being aggressive isn’t Pujara’s thing. With him, there is a solid resilience; an assurance that we had all come to trust.
It was in South Africa four years ago that Pujara emerged as India’s batting mainstay in Tests. With a century and a fifty in four innings, the Saurashtra lad was quite a hit during the series.
So what has changed and why has it changed?
There has been a lot of talk about Kohli’s aggression weighing on Pujara’s mind. While that may be correct, it may not be the only thing.
His batting average away from home is now pretty ordinary and he might also be feeling an inward pressure to prove his credentials. We need to remember, he doesn’t have ODIs, T20s or even the IPL to fall back on. He has just Test cricket.
Pujara’s average overseas
- In Australia M: 3; R: 201; HS: 73; Avg: 33.50; 100: 0; 50: 1.
- In England M: 5; R: 222; HS: 55; Avg: 22.20; 100: 0; 50: 1.
- In South Africa M: 6; R: 360; HS: 153; Avg: 32.72; 100: 1; 50: 1.
- In New Zealand M: 2; R: 60; HS: 23; Avg: 15.00; 100: 0, 50: 0.
This struggle, as the numbers suggest, is real.
On current form, though, it might not be surprising if he does in fact miss the boat for the third Test. He shouldn’t but he just might. If it does pan out that way, then would have come a full circle for the right-hand batsman.
To be fair to him, one of the core reasons behind India’s chastening series loss to South Africa has been the collective failure of India’s batting order.
In fact, India’s top-order has been non-existent in this series. In both the innings at Cape Town, India had lost half their side even as the team score read just 76.
Conditions in Centurion for the second Test were quite similar to India, in that the pitch was slow, and offered little in terms of seam to the batsmen. However, despite the similarities to a subcontinental track, it was only Kohli who showed the stomach for a fight on that wicket.
At Centurion, India lost five wickets with just 164 on the board in the first innings. In the second essay they had lost half the side with just 65 runs to show for it.
Pujara was among the few batsmen from the side, who had performed admirably in 2013 when India last toured South Africa.
However, the scores of 26, 4, 0 and 19 hardly to justice to his rich experience.
Question of intent
It wasn’t just that he came up short, it was the manner in which it transpired. It appeared as though he was trying to prove himself. It wasn’t the same Pujara who scored a gritty half-century against Sri Lanka on a seaming track in Kolkata. Nor was he same batsman who scored a fluent 143 against the same opponents in the very next match. This was a very confused Pujara.
He went to South Africa under a lot of pressure, most of it clearly self-driven. And as the series has progressed, it’s become clear that he has succumbed to the weight of these very expectations.
Through his knock of 153, Kohli proved that he was cut of a different cloth. It’s sad that the likes of Pujara feel they need to try and match that style of batting.
While, it is quite alright for one to harbour aspirations of improvement, for now, it seems like an error in judgment. Sometimes when the going gets tough, the top players just go back to what they do best.
Pujara should probably do that too. India, at this point, doesn’t need a new Kohli-inspired clone. We’d just like the old Pujara back.