Cheteshwar Pujara will not be around forever, cherish him

The period of prolific run-scoring may be amiss for now, but discussions on Pujara's overall impact ought to consider more than just cold statistics.

Cheteshwar Pujara of India walks to the nets during a practice session at Lord's.   -  Getty Images

"When I am batting, I don’t look at the scorecard. I only look at it at the end of a session or after stumps,"Cheteshwar Pujara said a couple of months after he struck three centuries in a series tally of 521 runs across seven innings during the 2018-19 tour of Australia.

Since scoring those three hundreds, Pujara has averaged only 27.60 in 20 Test matches. The big runs have dried up. He's made nine fifties, but among them are also his fourth-innings heroics in Sydney and Brisbane earlier this year. One could argue Pujara has played his role to perfection by blunting the new ball and ensuring that the opposition bowlers bowled as many overs as possible. It was on display during the last Border-Gavaskar series, where, overall, he faced 928 balls, close to a fourth of the balls faced by India, wearing Australia's bowlers down. Pujara featured in all the Test matches that India played in the first two-year WTC cycle (between August 22, 2019 and June 18, 2021) and faced 2,356 balls in 30 innings.

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However, so far, in 2021, Pujara has made only 434 runs at nearly 29. He has gone 33 innings without a Test century. In the WTC final against New Zealand, he was out for scores of 8 and 15. The team management and Pujara may have acknowledged there's a problem, and recognised the need for redressal. Pujara showed a degree of urgency, hitting three fours to reach 12 in 13 balls during India's run chase at Trent Bridge, which was eventually cut short by incessant showers on the final day. That said, Pujara has come undone against James Anderson, who has got him out twice in this series, and his stonewalling ability is once again drawing murmurs of discontent. So, is he a less effective player now? It's a two-phase answer.

In Australia, Pujara's resilience in the face of adversity was celebrated; his stodgy approach was hailed. Yet seven months later, when Pujara made 45 off 206 balls on day four of the Lord's Test - with India at 3 for 55 - and took 35 balls to get off the mark, he had to hear how he needed to keep the scorecard ticking. This wasn’t even the longest he had taken to open his account: in Johannesburg in 2018, he faced 53 balls before scoring his first run.

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Pujara's overall Test numbers (88 matches, 6337 runs, 45.58 avg, 18 100s, 29 50s) can serve as a reminder of how much Pujara has contributed at No. 3. The period of prolific run-scoring may be amiss for now, but discussions on his overall impact ought to consider more than just cold statistics. There is no question that Pujara has had a role in raising India's profile as a Test powerhouse, a value that is not easily measured even by looking at metrics such as runs scored, hundreds raised, and numbers of Tests won overseas. Think Gabba 2021, where during his 56 (211), he took several blows and blunted the Australian attack, eventually allowing Rishabh Pant to blitz the seamers into submission in Brisbane.

Pujara has a risk-averse personality. He will step out to the spinners, but only when he thinks he can drive along the ground. He tends to score quickly once set because he has a measure of the pitch and can find the gaps more frequently. The problem now is that Pujara, in England, save the occasional cut and the flick, has struggled to convert the full balls into scoring opportunities, finding fielders more than gaps.

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Pujara is no stranger to criticism, and it has contributed to his focus and steel as a batsman. Before the start of the 2018 England series, Pujara had a brief stint with Yorkshire, where he played alongside Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Adam Lyth. Against Essex, during one of the county games, Yorkshire was bowled out for 50. Three months later, he was dropped for the first Test at Edgbaston. "It wasn’t like I was out of form because while batting for Yorkshire, I was out to some good balls," he said. Pujara’s game has been built around not getting out to the good balls – but he keeps getting the unplayable deliveries. Mark Wood's delivery to him in the second innings at Lord's, aided by variable bounce, was one such ball. Or his dismissal in the first innings at Sydney earlier this year, where Pat Cummins had him caught behind with a back of a length ball that bounced appreciably.

So why should we celebrate Pujara? Firstly, Pujara deserves all accolades. And he deserves it because of his indulgent and decorous restraint, the insistence not just on surviving but thriving. Nobody else does this better than him in this Test team; partly because very few can. In the age of T20, T10 and now, The Hundred, there are exhilarating ways to play cricket. But equally, we're lucky to still have at least one player of Pujara's style – the very picture of a warrior monk - who also meets the standard.

Perhaps once he has hung up his boots, Indian cricket will find the time for a little reflection.

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