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Friday, January 22, 2021

The abstinent warrior: It’s time Cheteshwar Pujara’s method gets its just due

It’s time his contributions got a standalone value. It’s time he shed the next Dravid label.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: January 12, 2021 9:18:30 am
India's Cheteshwar Pujara watches as a ball passes during play on the final day of the third cricket test between India and Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground (Source: AP)

With a nondescript nudge through midwicket, Cheteshwar Pujara completed his 6,000th run in Test cricket, only the 11th Indian cricketer to do so. A more significant feature was that he reached this mark in fewer innings (134) than a host of batting glitterati – Sourav Ganguly (159) and Mohammad Azharuddin (143), Michael Clarke (135) and AB de Villiers (137), and in exactly the same number of innings as Jacques Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene.

Yet, there has been a reluctance to acknowledge him as a great of this generation. There hangs, in some minds, question marks over his influence and place in the side. Instead, his old-school approach is constantly criticised, his pace of scoring profusely critiqued, by even those former cricketers – now pundits – who own half a prolific record as his or batted at a slower pace than him. The cricket world went to town about his slowest half-century in the first innings, though in hindsight, his 176-ball 50 glows in immensity in the final stock-checking of the match. Had he not soaked in all those balls, India would not have reached even the first innings total they eventually managed (244).

This indeed is a jet-speed era, the cars and trains are faster, telephone networks supersonic, brain-synapses rocket-fuelled. A world wherein delays and snags are met with intolerance, the virtues of patience and forbearance hurled out of the window and nipped in childhood. Yet, there is still a place for the slow riffs and rhythms of life. Marathons are still valued, long rallies in tennis are still appreciated, year-long soap operas and never-ending Netflix series are still en vogue. Then why slow batting in Test cricket is rebuked? Remember Anil Kumble’s words when he defended Pujara: “I thought strike rates in Test cricket are only limited to bowlers.”

If one can’t bat slow in Test cricket, where else can one do that? Test cricket is not a highway one could just zip away on. Sometimes, one has to navigate through busy junctions, where one has to patiently bide the time at traffic signals. And what constitutes slow in Test cricket anyway? Pujara bats with a strike rate of 45.45. Ajinkya Rahane’s corresponding figures are 49.8. What difference does a five-ball differential matter in Test cricket? If one goes back in time, Rahul Dravid’s was 42.5. No doubt that Pujara has not reached that stature, whether he scales such heights is mere conjecture too, but Pujara has created a space for himself in world cricket.

It’s time his contributions got a standalone value. It’s time he shed the next Dravid label. Both are as different as chalk and cheese, but for their essence of batting. Dravid was more stylish, Pujara more crabby, yet the soul of their game is batting time and battling elements with the defensive resoluteness and indefatigable mental strength. There are climes and bowlers Dravid has conquered like few others, like the swing and seam of England and the delicate wristwork of James Anderson. But then, Pujara has a formidable record in Australia, his hundreds in Adelaide and Melbourne laying the foundation of India’s first (and so far only) series win Down Under. In 19 innings. he averages 48 there. Dravid, despite the landmark 233 in Adelaide, averaged just 41.64 in 32 innings. This is not to devalue the contributions of Dravid — who played his part in the famous Perth win in 2008 with his 93 —but just to put Pujara’s contributions in perspective, just to appreciate the fruits of his labour.

His contributions to some of India’s famous wins are often forgotten. Like the 145 not out on a difficult Colombo track, which conceptualised Kohli’s first series win as captain; or the first innings 50 in Johannesburg, or the second innings 72 in Nottingham, or obviously his three hundreds in Australia that marked the zenith of Kohli’s captaincy career yet. His average in matches India have won abroad is 45.29; Kohli’s is 41.88.

On Monday, Pujara filed another reminder of his indispensability. His reassuring presence provided Rishabh Pant the freedom to launch a stirring counterattack. Until Josh Hazlewood produced another ball-of-the-match contender, Pujara was flawless, batting in his own world and influencing the match in his own way, unaffected by the sounds of nit-picking swirling around him. And let it not be lost in the magnificent effort of Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin that Pujara soaked up the most number of balls (205) in this epochal draw.

A hat-trick of boundaries, wrought off Pat Cummins, silenced some of his critics. But it’s not his prerogative to thrill. He’s not paid to thrill, but to bat for his country, to dig deep and win matches. The thrill-seekers could switch to a Leeds United game, or watch the Big Bash League on a reel. Leave Pujara and Test cricket alone. After completing 6,000 runs in Tests, at a faster rate than several legends of the games, he deserves his bit of peace, space and legacy. The tribe of Pujara should be even more celebrated because the art of slow, patient batting is dying. There will spring the Kohlis and Steve Smiths of the world, but less so the Pujaras.

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