For all the criticism he receives, Cheteshwar Pujara had a pretty high strike-rate at the Gabba. In 211 balls, he got struck on the body, by a conservative estimate, 11 times. Once every 19 balls or so.
It was a number that would have been fine in the boxing ring too. And as he took the pounding, one couldn’t help but think of a famous bout involving Muhammad Ali. But it wasn’t as Shane Warne said, the Thrilla in Manila, rather it was the Rumble in the Jungle.
On paper, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ which took place in Zaire in 1974 was a mismatch. The reigning champion George Foreman had scored 24 consecutive knockouts, and he didn’t even see the ageing 32-year-old Ali as an opponent.
Just as perhaps not many in Australia saw the injury-riddled Indian squad as an opponent. There was fight, there was grit, but India had simply run out of players and were forced to turn to their net bowlers to put XI players on the field at Brisbane. Opponents? Only a team that Australia thought they could easily knockout.
“I don’t like fights,” Foreman had then said. “I just land the right punch and everything is over. Nobody gets hurt and nobody gets killed...”
It could so easily have been Australia. Land the right punch and everything is over.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll come across a quote from the great Archie Moore (a former heavyweight champion himself), who was in Foreman’s corner for the fight. Foreman, who later became a pastor after retiring, had a ritual before fights where they would all hold hands and pray.
On that day in Zaire, just before the fight, Moore found himself praying for Ali.
Here’s what he said: “I was praying, and in great sincerity, that George wouldn’t kill Ali. I really felt that was a possibility. George truly doesn’t know his own strength.”
Perhaps, many of us were praying too. So many Indian players had taken knocks on the body. Some because of the pitch, some because of the bowling, some because of poor technique and some because they simply wanted to. Players had been hit, players had been broken but a few still kept coming back for more.
Ali’s strategy was simple. Such was Foreman’s power that he hadn’t fought in the fourth round in seven years. Ali decided to see if he could outlast the big hitter. He let his body rest on the ropes and tried to absorb everything Foreman could throw at him. By the eighth round, when Ali knocked him out, Foreman was no longer dancing. His feet were dead.
Pujara, like Ali, absorbed everything the Aussies could throw at him. All through the series, he batted and he batted. Australia wanted to knock him out, or send him back early (as Pat Cummins did a few times in the series), or “rip the helmet off”, if not his head. They wanted to see him back in the dressing room but this man liked nothing more than being in the middle; in the heat of battle.
Pujara in Australia
993 runs, ave 45.29, 100s: 3, 50s: 5 (2657 balls faced in 11 Tests, 21 inns). balls/inns: 126.52
The only difference was that Australia had seen this happen before. To an even greater degree on the 2018-’19 tour. But then, India had Virat Kohli. They had their best bowlers. And Australia didn’t have Steve Smith and David Warner.
Ali employed the rope-a-dope tactic only once in his career. Pujara has made it his trademark. Ali was versatile. He could even dance. Pujara isn’t versatile… he cannot dance. He brings rope-a-dope into play against every opponent. It isn’t a special plan. It is the only plan.
“I mostly got hit from one end and that too against (Pat) Cummins,” Pujara told The Indian Express. “There was this crack on the pitch around the short-of-length spot from where the ball would just take off. Cummins has the skill to make the ball rear up from there and make it follow you. In case I took my hand up to defend it, there was a risk that I would glove the ball. Considering the match situation and how we couldn’t afford to lose wickets, I decided to let the ball hit my body.”
Let that sink in: “I decided to let the ball hit my body.”
Such words are not spoken lightly. Just see the images of Pujara gritting his teeth just before the ball hits him. On the arm. On the helmet. On the fingers. On the chest. At a certain point, his eyes seem glazed.
The youngsters know no fear – perhaps that explains the belligerence. But Pujara knows fear. He’s stared it in the eye and stood his ground.
And because cricket is a team game, Pujara didn’t have to do it alone. Bowling short balls takes a lot out of a fast bowler. At the end of a long series, on the fifth day, it perhaps even takes out more than normal. Each short ball robbed the bowler of more energy.
Then, when they took the second new ball, they just didn’t have the legs… the zing. They still ran in hard (as hard as they could) but Washington Sundar’s cameo left them tottering before Rishabh Pant delivered the knockout punch.
Zaire (1974). Gabba (2021). In both cases, rope-a-dope triumphed. Ali triumphed. Pujara triumphed. The tactic isn’t for everyone but if you have the heart to take a pounding, it can work.
When Ali was around, he was a bit of a fixation for the writers of the time. He was charismatic, talented, outspoken, a bit of a poet, a bit of an activist and a bloody good boxer. He was the sun and he didn’t fear going against the flow.
Pujara also doesn’t fear going against the flow. And those who follow and write about cricket endlessly debate him and his style just as earnestly. His strike-rate, his movement, his humility, his intent. This is, once again, but his moment in the sun.
But unlike Ali who could do anything, anywhere and at any time, Pujara will stick to his method, for it is his way. The only way. Rope-a-dope.