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Better average than Laxman, higher strike rate than Dravid: Why modern great Pujara is still underrated

In terms of consistency, Cheteshwar Pujara is in the top 10 of India's finest of all time. He is seventh on the list of best averages (47.85) for his country, just behind Sehwag, and ahead of Laxman, Ganguly, Azharuddin, and Vengsarkar.

Written by Sandip G , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: January 13, 2021 12:52:36 pm
India's Cheteshwar Pujara avoids a bouncer during play on day three of the third cricket test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. (AP Photo: Rick Rycroft)

The modern-day obsession with fast scoring rates has come in the way of acknowledging and appreciating the value and greatness of Cheteshwar Pujara. But having completed 6,000 Test runs, it’s high time the Saurashtra Stonewaller got the overdue laurels. Not just for his ability to lay siege and make batting easier for his middle-order colleagues, but also his capacity to win games for the country, albeit in the old-fashioned way of grinding down opposition bowlers.

How good has Pujara been as a match-winner?

Pujara averages 45.29 in India’s Test wins abroad, while Virat Kohli, considered the best Indian batsman of this generation, averages 41.88. Pujara contributions to some of India’s famous victories in the last five years could not be overlooked. India’s maiden Test series win in Australia automatically comes to mind, but that was not a one-off instance. His 145 not out in Colombo, which laid the foundations of a terrific comeback series-win, Kohli’s maiden series triumph as captain, is often forgotten. But he carried the bat on a deviously-swinging surface to furnish India a respectable first-innings total. He was there in Nottingham (2018) too, repelling an inspired Stuart Broad and James Anderson, to score 72 off 208. In Johannesburg in 2018, his 178-ball 50 in a total of 187 was valuable. Not to forget some of his match-winning knocks back home. His third-innings of 92 on a turning surface was a masterclass on nullifying top-class spin bowling. Thus more often than not, whenever India had been in trouble, Pujara has put his hands up and knuckled down at the crease.

How does Pujara compare with Kohli as a match-influencer in Tests?

Overall, Pujara average shoots up to 56.47 in matches that India have won (both home and abroad). And only two of his centuries have come in a losing cause (both against England, in Mumbai and Southampton). Virat Kohli’s is marginally better (60.40), but both have scored more or less the same number of runs in winning causes. Pujara has amassed 3840 in 75 innings while Kohli had 3872 in 71. As far as match-changing faculties are concerned, there is little to choose between them in terms of runs and average.

Is his strike rate as bad as it is projected?

Strike rates of batsmen in Test have progressively increased in the T20 milieu, but his strike rate of 45.45 is not too low for even a contemporary batsman. For instance, Ajinkya Rahane’s is 49.8, despite batting down the order, yet considered a progressive batsman. It’s Pujara’s designated role too—to offer stability and assurance to the side, which enables the stroke-makers the liberty to play their natural game. More so for a side that has yet to nail down a stable opening pair—in the last three years, India have had as many as eight different openers due to a combination of reasons from incompetence to injuries and inconsistency. It was much the same for Rahul Dravid too, for much of his career, he had to satisfy with an unstable pair and often compensate for them. Unless India unearth a Justin Langer-Matthew Hayden kind of opening pair, they can’t imagine sending a freewheeling batsman like Ricky Ponting at No 3. In the past, Virat Kohli had deputed Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma, but with little success, validating the importance of Pujara and the sparkling value of his hard grind. The run-rate, when he bats, might not whirr, but he safeguards wickets, which is more important in Test cricket.

The role of a stonewaller in a cricket team is akin to a defensive midfielder, whose function is to facilitate the creativity of the more attacking players. It’s the most taxing, yet the most unnoticed job in football.

Can he not score runs at a faster rate?

Moreover, it’s a myth that he cannot bat at a faster pace. Generally, he accelerates once he has passed 30-40 and if the team is not in a precarious position. He did not push the pedal in the first innings in Sydney because India were still waddling through choppy waters, Australians were bowling hostilely, giving hardly any boundary ball. So he had to hang in. In fact, in 14 of the 18 instances he had scored a century, his strike rate has been in excess of 50. His overall strike rate of 45.45 is better than Dravid’s, and only marginally lower than Jacques Kallis (46) and Steve Waugh (48.6).

How does he compare with the legends of Indian batting?

In terms of consistency, he is in the top 10 of India’s finest of all time. He is seventh on the list of best averages (47.85) for his country, just behind Virender Sehwag, and ahead of VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Dilip Vengsarkar. He is 11th on the list of highest run-getters for India in Test and seventh on the century-scorers table. His 6000th run arrived at a faster rate (134) than the likes of Ganguly (159), and Azharuddin (143). Among international cricketers, he clocked the mark faster than Michael Clarke (135) and AB de Villiers (137), and in exactly the same innings as Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene. While statistics is not the most definitive to tool ascertain the greatness of an athlete, it goes a long way in establishing greatness. And which yardstick you pick to measure Pujara, his greatness is more than established. By both runs and deeds, the centuries he has scored and the balls he has faced.

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