Cheteshwar Pujara’s short career has spiralled down from spectacular highs to alarming
lows. Once touted as the future bulwark of the batting order, he is struggling to pin down
his place in the side. Arunabha Sengupta argues that his performances in England
and Australia notwithstanding he may still fulfil his promise of an all-condition player.
Just 483 runs in the last 10 Tests at a measly average of 24.15. He has crossed fifty
only twice in the 20 innings. The runs have come painstakingly, at a strike rate of 41.49.
The career average still reads a respectable 47.11, but it has spiralled down from a
stratospheric Husseyesque 67.63 in a spectacular crash. The numerically savvy
followers of the game know where to look. And the chinks and crevices are not subtle
by any stretch of imagination.
The difference between the home (75.23) and away (29.40) averages stretches across
like a giant chasm between heaven and hell. Scores of 153 and 73 at Johannesburg
and Durban have not really been able to build a bridge between the peaks of greatness
and miserable morass of mediocrity.
Cheteshwar Pujara had everything of the demeanour of an Indian middle order maestro
at the Test level. He radiated stillness, patience – the unhurried, unfazed placidity laced
with good humour. There was an old world charm around his personality. Here, most
thought, was the ideal Test batsman. Someone who has been tailor made to fit into the
enormous shoes of Rahul Dravid.
And hopes soared as he raced to 1000 runs in just 11 Tests, his average in the high
60s, the centuries column registering increases in continuous spurts. His game seemed
touched with that elusive ingredient of calmness. With such attitude and temperament
he was bound to succeed in foreign lands – or so one thought.
Virat Kohli was the insanely talented maverick in the batting line up, but it was Pujara in
whom the Indian cricket fans saw the rock, the moderation, the restraint that makes a
successful Test batsman, that holds the innings together in the face of foreign attacks.
And now, as the fourth and final Test at Sydney gets underway, Kohli has blazed his
way to 499 runs in Australia at 83.16 with three supreme hundreds. Furthermore, he
has taken over captaincy and is seen as the harbinger of a new era of Indian cricket.
And Pujara is tottering on the brink of being axed from the side, having already lost his
No 3 slot in the batting line up, with just one half-century to show for his efforts in the
last 14 innings.
Did the Indian fans fall prey to stereotyping and illusory correlation? Did the halo effect
associated with a level-headed personality give rise to false promises of batting feats in
distant lands? Was the rock of the batting order a mere mirage created through wishful
thinking and misreading signs and symptoms?
There is no doubt that Pujara needs to take a long, hard look at himself. There are
problems with his game, of technique and temperament, that have raised their ugly
heads in the unfamiliar terrains far from home.
Swing has found him wanting, so has pace and bounce, balls have come back into him
to rattle his stumps, going through the defence that had given glimpses of
impregnability. And during his struggles against quality bowling and tough conditions, he
has managed to lose his wicket to the likes of Moeen Ali. The performances have not
been of the merit of a No 3 batsman. There are plenty of very good reasons because of
which his position in the batting line up and place in the side are no longer secure.
But are the two series in England and Australia proof enough that Pujara cannot deliver
in demanding circumstances?
Down the ages Indian cricket has been rather temperamental in awarding rope and
chances to cricketers. For a few, bad patches have stretched across seasons of
indulgent selection policies, while for a significant many opportunities to sort themselves
out have been severely limited. Praveen Amre and Vinod Kambli are two examples of
men who have never been able to rise once the axe has fallen.
However, it might be wise to allow Pujara sufficient leeway to rediscover and reinvent
There is no doubt that there is plenty of potential and poise in the young man. Besides,
we need to look at his performances with detachment and proper perspective.
He has had a torrid time in Australia so far. Yet, we must remember that the man he is
compared to most often, the great Dravid himself, scored a miserable 93 runs at 15.50
during his first tour of the arduous land Down Under. Four years later he returned –
albeit against a weakened bowling line up – to score 619 runs including that stellar
Adelaide classic. Keeping that comeback in mind, the current Australian tour is not
really enough evidence to suggest that Pujara will not be able to turn things around.
Furthermore, Pujara’s performance in South Africa shows that he can score away from
home. Dravid managed one hundred in 11 Tests encompassing four visits to Protea-
land. Pujara has already got a hundred in the three Tests he has played there, and
there is no reason why he won’t score many more.
The real surprise last year was perhaps Pujara’s constant failures in England, a country
that saw Dravid at his very best all through his career. It signalled two things. One, that
technical glitches were aplenty in the game of the Saurashtra batsman and he needs to
spend loads of time ironing them out. And two – let’s face it – comparisons are fine but
looking for congruence is a bit far-fetched. Pujara may not reach Dravid’s heights in
England, very few can. However, he can perhaps go beyond the rather ordinary returns
of the erstwhile master in demanding countries like South Africa and Sri Lanka.
All it requires perhaps is appending the aforementioned potential and poise with
patience and perseverance along with diligent tinkering of his technique. Pujara showed
plenty of proactive eagerness to get back among the runs when he made himself
available for county cricket at the end of the English tour. Some more initiative along the
same lines can help him to bounce back as the bulwark of the batting order he promised
to become not so long ago.