In a team sport, each player has a definite role. Cricket is no different. Be it any format – Tests, one-dayers or T20s – every player in the XI is expected to do a specific job. In India’s current Test team, Cheteshwar Pujara’s responsibility is to show patience, bat long and be the fulcrum on which the team’s total is built.
And the 32-year-old has been rather good at this job in his 76-Test career. His 5,762 runs, scored at an average of 48.83, have played a key role in many important victories for India. None more so than the 2018-19 Test series in Australia, where the right-hander slammed four centuries – one in each game – and amassed a total of 521 runs.
That tour Down Under saw Pujara do what he does best. He held up one end, batted for lengthy periods, blunted the Aussie attack, and helped India win two matches. The player of the series trophy he received was a just reward for someone whose contributions tend to flow under the radar.
However, when it comes to the upcoming second Test against New Zealand, Pujara will need to play a different role for his team.
The first Test saw India get bowled out twice in just over three days and lose by ten wickets. The biggest question facing the visitors ahead of the second and final game is the approach of their batsmen. Virat Kohli didn’t mince his words when he demanded a change in strategy after the drubbing in Wellington.
“I think the language we use as a batting unit, that has to be correct,” said the skipper. “I don’t think being cautious or wary will help because you might stop playing your shots. You will start doubting that if even singles are not coming in those conditions, what will you do? You are just waiting for when that good ball will come and you will be dismissed. You have that acceptance that it’s okay if you are out to a good ball. At least I don’t think that way. If I see a situation, if it is a green wicket, then I try to play counter-attacking cricket so that I can take the team forward. I don’t think a cautious approach ever pays off, especially away from home.”
These were some sharp words by Kohli. And rightly so. The captain was, arguably, pointing at the middle order which showed a severe lack of intent at the Basin Reserve. In both innings, Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari seemed content in offering a dead bat for the most part.
While pinning the blame on the likes of Rahane and Vihari may come naturally, one can’t help but question Pujara’s role in such a situation.
Pujara’s batting template is fairly straightforward: don’t take risks, put away the loose deliveries and wear down the bowlers. But there’s one major drawback to this strategy when there aren’t enough loose deliveries to capitalise on.
In the sub-continent, the right-hander picks up boundaries against spinners with consummate ease. A slightly short-pitched ball or a tossed-up one is cut or driven in a flash. Even in Australia, for that matter, he dealt with the extra bounce and attacked the likes of Nathan Lyon to keep the scoreboard ticking. But such run-scoring opportunities aren’t presented to him in New Zealand, a place where there is a steady breeze all day and movement for the pacers throughout.
In the first Test, Pujara left alone and defended one delivery after another but the ones he likes to attack simply didn’t turn up. He scored 11 off 42 (strike-rate of 26.19) and 11 off 81 (strike-rate of 13.38) in the two innings, faced 123 balls in total and managed to hit just one boundary. What makes matters worse for him and his team is his lack of interest in looking for a single. The dead-batted defense is what, perhaps, prompted Kohli to say what he did after the game.
Pujara's strike-rates in Test cricket
|In South Africa||38.88|
|In New Zealand||26.79|
|Oct 2010 to Jul 2012||51.69|
|Aug 2012 to Dec 2013||52.25|
|Jan 2014 to Aug 2016||42.39|
|Sep 2016 to Nov 2018||45.93|
|Dec 2018 to Feb 2020||46.40|
The Hagley Oval in Christchurch – the venue for the second Test – is expected to offer more swing to the fast bowlers. It wouldn’t be a surprise if New Zealand opt for an all-pace attack with Neil Wagner available as well. And that, of course, will only make the challenge even greater for Pujara.
With Kohli going through a lean patch and the opening pair being relatively inexperienced, the role of the No 3 batsman becomes all the more crucial. Being a senior member of the team, Pujara must take the initiative and allow the batters around him some time. But because he doesn’t, there is always a sword hanging over his head.
As soon as Pujara comes in to bat, India know the run-rate will drop, the opposition knows he won’t counter-attack, the non-striker knows that the onus to score runs is on him. That is a lot of baggage to carry even before his innings has begun. And somewhere, it must weigh the right-hander down even more. He may not say it, but he will be feeling the pressure.
Pujara had once said that it takes courage to defend the ball and not throw your bat at it. While the statement may be true, it’s also fair to say that it takes a similar amount of courage to try and score runs. As the skipper puts the onus on the batsmen to keep the score moving along, Puraja’s position seems to be a cozy one where he can afford to not take any risks. With the series on the line, India need him to get out of his comfort zone.