There is much to like about Cheteshwar Pujara. Not just about his batting where not enough has been written (and I hope a lot will be over the next twelve months) but about the person and the way he carries himself. Life has handed him some pretty tough cards over the years; personal losses, injuries and a strange game played over 120 balls have stood arrayed against him. He can only win one of those but has borne the others stoically. That is the word for him. Stoic.
But the tide turns for those that hang in and suddenly, there are warm winds blowing his way. In conditions he likes, and he has been successful in, India play seventeen Test matches. He couldn’t have predicted that if he had the option of writing the itinerary and so, indeed, after six months of hustle and charge and smash, India play a year of pause and assimilate, study and conquer kind of cricket. Pujara kind of cricket.
And West Indies will be an early Test for in the unexpected rough and tumble of life, he owns a Test place at the moment but it carries no guarantees. You wouldn’t have said that if you were watching Pujara bat four years ago when the hundreds were flowing in classical style. In his first seventeen Tests he got six and they were invariably large ones. Two over 200 and two over 150. His style was to wait and see, judge and assess. That done, he would conquer; with brisk thrusts, jabs and drives.
The second half, the return on investment, was often played very quickly and there was a touch of class about him. You didn’t need to be much of an analyst to predict a bright future for a young boy who faced adversity early in life. Then in early 2014, he went to New Zealand. He wasn’t the first Indian batsman to struggle. But England followed and Australia did and 20 innings produced only 483.
Pujara 2.0 is ready
He would get starts, only 4 of those 20 were single digit scores, but too many balls in mid innings would have his name on them. Over the previous two years, once he was set, the bat commanded action. Now, the bowlers knew they had a chance. Inevitably, he lost his place. I hadn’t believed that could happen. Almost by default, he got a game in Sri Lanka last year when the openers were struck down. He was asked to open the batting and much like the person he replaced at number three for India, he accepted the challenge. It seemed he was back and those that saw that 145 not out in Colombo were full of admiration. The next best in India’s first innings was 59 from a bowler. I thought Pujara 2.0 was ready.
— BCCI (@BCCI) July 13, 2016
He has played six innings after that and inevitably, on difficult pitches against South Africa, he battled through. But then, and this was baffling, he would miss a ball a player of his class wouldn’t be expected to. In a series of low scores he produced 31, 77, 21, 31, 14 and 28 but five of those six dismissals were either bowled or lbw. Inevitably, we would look at each other and say, ‘what happened there?” for each time he looked good for more.
He has had six months since the last of those innings and while it must stoke the fire in him, it isn’t easy to be away from quality cricket for so long. Test cricket asks of its practitioners questions that are more profound than in simple first class cricket where the interval between two bad balls isn’t too large. Now he must gather himself again as he has so often in life for the opportunity ahead of him is huge and enticing. The West Indies have long ceased to be among the best bowling units in the world and their pitches, quite unlike their fans, can be somnolent. Batsmen who hang in there and grind it out get good returns; those possessed of patience and grit are rewarded. It is down Pujara’s street. It is his opportunity.
And that is why I will be watching Cheteshwar Pujara closely, dare I say, even willing him on for a strong Pujara is good for India the way a strong Dravid was good for the batsmen to follow. Having missed out on 120 ball cricket, maybe he can play 200 balls himself.