Pujara, India’s new ‘Wall’ of strength

Just like Dravid, Pujara too went through a testing phase when his strike-rate came under scrutiny. Atleast for Dravid, the question was specific to his initial One Day Internationals, but startlingly for Pujara, the query was linked to his forays at the Test crease!

Comparisons are not too wise, but then, a consistent Cheteshwar Pujara has certainly bolstered India’s batting order.   -  AP

The number three slot in a batting order is extremely crucial. It demands the gift of stability, especially when the openers, either one or both, depart early. It requires incremental growth if the top-two set a fine base. It also overwhelmingly needs an air of serenity.

These templates found an exemplary practitioner in Rahul Dravid and his is the benchmark that Cheteshwar Pujara is aspiring to reach. In the past, the weather-beaten boots that Pujara stepped into, have been shared by two 100-Test-club men for over four decades, Dravid from 1996 and Dilip Vengsarkar from 1976. Pujara has the credentials to live up to that weighty legacy.

With 50 Tests yielding 4099 runs at an average of 52.23, and 13 centuries inclusive of a hundred in South Africa and three in Sri Lanka, Pujara’s journey from being a good batsman to becoming a great, is very much a work in progress. The signs, though, are heartening.

Just like Dravid, Pujara too went through a testing phase when his strike-rate came under scrutiny. Atleast for Dravid, the question was specific to his initial One Day Internationals, but startlingly for Pujara, the query was linked to his forays at the Test crease! He even briefly lost his spot in the playing eleven under Virat Kohli’s watch but forged a way back with fortitude and big runs scored at a brisk pace, being his allies.

In the recent two Tests at Galle and in the Sinhalese Sports Club here, Pujara scored 153, 15 and 133. These knocks are part of a productive phase stretching to last year. In his last 10 Test innings, he has amassed 706 runs averaging 70.6 and featuring a 202 against Australia at Ranchi. His berth in the longer format is seemingly set in stone, unlike his forays into limited overs cricket where he has just five ODIs under his belt and the label of a Test-specialist, a strongly adhesive one which he cannot shed.

Ahead of the second Test, Pujara did mention about wanting to play in all formats and the need to show more (aggressive) intent in his batting. He may be drawn towards wearing the blue shade but his value is more crucial in Test whites. It is a position that he has worked hard to secure and retain. If earlier Ajinkya Rahane, thanks to a prolific run overseas, edged out the talented Rohit Sharma in the battle for middle-order slots, Pujara has now managed to stay ahead of the Mumbaikar, the latter coming into contention only when the team opts for a six-batsmen combination.

Vitally, Pujara has atlast found the needed backing from Kohli and the skipper recently said: “Pujara and Ajinkya are our two best Test batsmen, especially in the middle order. They have been doing so well consistently. Pujara, I would give more credit because he only plays one format and to have that hunger and passion day in day out, and to come out and have those consistent performances, takes a lot of mental strength. He obviously has the game and knows how to score runs. He has evolved massively as a batter and his game has gone to another level. If you see from the last season and continuing now, he has got about 1500 runs which is outstanding. Credit goes to how hard he works on the game. He scores runs in all conditions and that for us is most important.”

Like his idol Dravid, Pujara has revealed a safe pair of hands in the close-in cordon. He needs to be more athletic in the outfield as his winnowing steps demand more strides per 100 metres. His batting is getting well-rounded but there is one area where he has to improve – ‘running between the wickets’. A run-out, his or the partner’s, now look possible and he needs to rule that out. It is a minor blemish in a canvas that he has painted well.