Cheteshwar Pujara is undoubtedly India's best batsman at home. (© Getty Images)
Cheteshwar Pujara is undoubtedly India’s best batsman at home.
(© Getty Images)

It is the late 1990s. Paul Wiseman and Daniel Vettori have been bowling to an extremely defensive (‘boring’ is more like it) length all day. Rahul Dravid snails away to another 140-ball 50 (who is surprised?).  The Test heads towards an expected draw. In the next Test, Dravid, despite a batting average close to 50, gets dropped in favour of Hrishikesh Kanitkar because the latter has latent talent and is able to score at a brisk pace. No. All of this is fiction. It never happened. That would have never happened in the period mentioned. But times have changed. So have priorities. In days of muscles, tattoos and swag, where does Cheteshwar Pujara fit in?

“Pujara was left out of the Jamaica Test where everybody said he was a bit slow to score and I was completely surprised by those comments. You need a No. 3 batsman like that, imagine Rahul Dravid, he would change his game according to situations. On seaming pitches you cannot just go and hit through the line.” These were the words of Sourav Ganguly, one of India’s most successful skippers understands this.

A man who could eye areas in stands at will and knew a thing or two about building an innings block by block, Ganguly’s career was a bridge as he has seen the better part of both the world: the world where a certain Dravid and Sanjay Bangar would survive hostile English conditions at Headingley by blocking and letting go and another where Virender Sehwag go on to score the fastest triple-hundred.

Virat Kohli, KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane have earned well-deserved breaks for themselves. They had a good tour of West Indies and are keeping themselves fresh for the New Zealand series. But Pujara, a man who established himself as a Test cricketer before the above did, has to prove himself again. He did so, once again and in style, in the just concluded Duleep Trophy, where he scored 453 runs from three innings at a strike rate touching 67. Yes, we focus mainly on averages but let that take a backseat for a while.

Kohli’s men scripted history when they won the final Test in Sri Lanka last year. Pujara, making a comeback, opened batting, an unfamiliar position for him. He struck a fine ton, carrying his bat through the innings in conditions suited better for bowling. Then came the South Africa series, something that was a batsman’s nightmare. As India thrashed the then No. 1 side 3-0, Pujara ended up as India’s third-highest run-getter.

In the West Indies tour, his 16 off 67 balls and 46 off 159 balls cost him his place in the XI for the third Test. Where did he go wrong? When did strike rate become the paramount parameter in Test cricket? Pujara has not done well overseas. That is a different argument but he would have played at a brisker rate had he known his place in the side was safe.

For over a year, many from the team management from Ravi Shastri to Kohli have openly backed Rohit Sharma’s importance in the Test side for his ability to turn the game on its head. You cannot keep performing with an axe looming over your head. Assuming Pujara was trying to cement his case in the XI and batted slow but that did not help. Eventually the axe fell.

No more blues for Pujara: it is India Blue

Let bygones be bygones. With a long home season coming up, Pujara had to prove himself, which he did and this time he made a statement with his strike rate. His 166 against India Green was controlled, 31 in the next innings was attacking and the 256 not out against India Red in the Duleep Trophy final was authoritative.

Pujara’s Duleep Trophy 2016 scores

Runs Balls SR
166 280 59.28
31 35 88.57
256* 363 70.52

His main competitor, the aggressive Rohit played alongside him in the final.

Runs Balls SR
30 57 52.63
32* 75 42.66

It is indeed surprising that Rohit, who averages 32.62 from 18 Tests, competes for a slot with Pujara, to whose stats we will come later.

In his interview with India Today Ganguly has put it correctly: “I think he has got a fair rope, but I don’t think the selectors are going to find anything more about Rohit with the 13 Test matches we play in India. I would pick Pujara any day ahead of Rohit because he is a better player at the Test level.”

Coming back to Pujara’s knock in the final, he was particularly severe on Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav, who had till then troubled the best in the tournament. Another statement made but the Pujara way, subtly.

India Blue the erstwhile India Seniors, led by Gambhir lifted the Duleep Trophy. Pujara belongs every bit to the India Seniors.

King of Home Conditions

The term ‘Home bully’ is not perceived positively. The conditions are same for all and if someone turns out to be a bully at home, that player deserves every iota of credit. Pujara is a home bully in its literal sense.

This was his 33rd First-Class hundred and 10th score in excess of 200, of which three scores are in excess of 300. And he is 28. Had Gautam Gambhir not chosen to declare the India A innings, the fourth 300 was not far away. That is First-Class. In this decade, Pujara is India’s most successful batsman at home in Test cricket.

India’s most successful batsmen at home since January 2010

Players Tests Runs HS Ave 100s SR
Cheteshwar Pujara 17 1,481 206* 64.39 5 53.79
Virender Sehwag 18 1,454 173 50.13 4 90.53
Sachin Tendulkar 22 1,411 214 44.09 3 52.98
MS Dhoni 22 1,264 224 46.81 3 57.79
Virat Kohli 17 1,059 107 46.04 3 48.84
Murali Vijay 13 928 167 46.40 3 47.27

It is a long home season coming up. There are Kohlis, Vijays and Rahanes but if these numbers are a fair indicator, we know who the king of the arena is.

The strike-rate myth

“With modern cricket, everybody looks at the strike rate rather than what that particular player brings to that table. Pujara is a very important cog in our wheel and when he plays at No. 3, he is a very important player. Yes, there are times when he misses out and Rohit comes in. That is when we probably feel we need someone lower down to accelerate. That is why in one of the Tests in West Indies, he missed out,” said India’s Head Coach Anil Kumble in a recent interview with ESPNCricinfo.

Career record of India’s contemporary batsmen

Players Tests Runs HS Ave 100s SR
Cheteshwar Pujara 35 2,482 206* 46.83 7 48.80
Virat Kohli 45 3,245 200 45.06 12 53.59
Murali Vijay 39 2,637 167 40.56 6 46.88
Ajinkya Rahane 26 1,862 147 49.00 7 54.14
Shikhar Dhawan 22 1,446 187 40.16 4 60.25
KL Rahul 8 492 158 37.84 3 52.84
R Ashwin 36 1,439 124 34.26 4 55.32
Rohit Sharma 18 946 177 32.62 2 52.14

Follow the career strike rates. Pujara may not be on the top but barring Shikhar Dhawan, there is no one who strikes at over 60. Had any one of the peers been striking at a Sehwag or Gilchrist rate, Pujara being made the scapegoat would have been accepted. It is a myth that Pujara bats too slow.

Perhaps his weakness lies in his ability to accelerate at will. An aspect of the game, he is working on and it was evident in the Duleep Trophy.

While Pujara was out in the middle fighting it like a gladiator, helmet and armour intact throughout the knock and bat making way for the sword, en route his unbeaten 256, Kumble was in the stands, applauding.

Hopefully he has proved a point and earned Kumble’s confidence. Or maybe, in times to come parameters will again change for Pujara, and a fighter that he is, he will have to prove himself all over again. Like his father Arvind once said, that Pujara has seen worse, his mother’s death. Challenges do not boggle him down.

Once hailed as the ‘next Dravid’, Pujara has cemented India’s No. 3 slot for himself for now. Cricket has place for Pujaras and he starts the series as one of India’s top batsman.

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur, philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully and rivu7)