Sanjay Manjrekar decodes batsman Cheteshwar Pujara

An important fallout of Cheteshwar Pujara’s success in Australia has been that he has converted Virat Kohli into believing and respecting defensive batsmanship!

Cheteshwar Pujara gets right back to balls that are short and has a nice stride forward when the ball is full. These are great fundamentals to have as a batsman.   -  Getty Images

When I think of Cheteshwar Pujara, an image of an earnest person with a polite smile comes to mind.

This demeanour of Pujara has not changed in the last eight years that he has been playing for India and this is commendable, for he has not had an easy ride in Indian cricket. In fact, nothing in cricket has come easy for Pujara.

Like a Sachin Tendulkar or a Virat Kohli, he was not touted as the next big thing in Indian cricket where selectors were just waiting for these kids to get some runs to fast track them on to the big scene. Prodigious talent demands and deserves that kind of special treatment in sports.

Pujara wasn’t prodigiously talented and to be clear and for convenience, I use talent as a word to suggest only physical skills and not the mental side of sport.

READ| Cheteshwar Pujara: You become even more determined once you are benched

Pujara, for a defensive batsman, did not even have a defensive technique to rave about, but I remember being very impressed with his decisive, simple footwork in his debut Test against Australia.

He was right back to balls that were short and had a nice stride forward when the ball was full. These were great fundamentals to have as a batsman. On the downside, it was easy to see that he was not very athletic nor did he possess power in a power-driven batting world of today.

So all poor Pujara had as his ally to survive at the top were runs. Only runs would keep him in the side and the moment the runs dried up he would be out! This was his fate, his reality.

He was not one like Rohit Sharma, chosen to get the long rope in Indian cricket.

Pujara with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after India had beaten Australia 2-1 in the Test Series down under earlier this year. Pujara, who hit three hundreds, was named the Player of the Series.   -  Getty Images

 

Anyway, after that debut Test in India, Pujara went to South Africa and failed in the three innings he got there. Sceptics like me made a note of it!

Then came that 153 at the Wanderers on his second trip to South Africa in 2013. One must know South Africa is the most arduous amongst foreign countries for Indian batsmen to get runs. Even batting greats of India have average numbers there!

After that 153, Pujara was marked down as an Indian batsman who could get runs away from India too.

But what followed thereafter in 2013 was a troubling reminder that Pujara had limitations as a batsman. After the South African tour he had a poor series in New Zealand, England and finally Australia too. This was the time when Virat, Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay emerged as the Indian batsmen for all seasons while the question mark reappeared next to Pujara’s name.

He had now lost his place in the Indian playing XI and when the team came back to the comforts of playing in Asia in the one-off Test against Bangladesh in Fatullah, Virat gave Shikhar Dhawan a comeback opportunity, ahead of Pujara, showing his clear preference for the dashers rather than the dour. Dhawan got a 100 in that Test and Pujara was watching it from the sidelines.

It was not until the Sri Lankan tour in 2015 that Pujara got another opportunity. This was as an opener and on a difficult pitch he got a 100, carrying his bat through the innings. This was a typical gritty, Pujara effort, but I was still concerned for him.

Skipper Virat Kohli tries to teach Pujara some dance steps as the Indians celebrate in Sydney.   -  Getty Images

 

This was the time when Duncan Fletcher had got all Indian batsmen sold on the theory that having a wide stance and trying to get forward all the time was a great way to bat.

During that century innings, Pujara got hit on the gloves a few times by the short ball. Interestingly, Pujara was well on to the front foot to those balls! My worry was that Pujara was not an instinctive batsman with natural flair and exceptional hand-eye coordination! He had all his eggs in one basket, his defensive technique.

And his technique seemed to have deteriorated.

His defence was getting breached more often now, but Pujara was still good enough to get a truckload of runs at home to remain entrenched in the Indian side.

Come January 2018, his second round of ‘foreign Tests’ came and this was going to decide once and for all, whether Pujara was just a flat-track bully or a world-class, versatile player.

Round one in South Africa did not go well for him. He was defending and surviving for hours but had only a few runs to show at the end of it. His captain was getting restless by this, for Pujara was batting in a key position at No. 3.

To tide over this issue, and maybe to please his captain, Pujara tried the ‘tip and run’ style to ensure that his defensive shots were not just an accumulation of dot balls. This tactic did not work, he was getting run out now!

Pujara is not an athlete remember?

India had now become a one-man batting team and Pujara joined the others in the category of those Indian batsmen who could not adapt and excel.

Pujara along with his wife Puja at the Sportstar Aces awards in Mumbai on February 14. The star Indian batsman received the Chairman’s Choice award.   -  Emmanual Yogini

And then it all changed on that England trip the same year. In Southampton, Pujara followed up a 72 in Nottingham with a 132 not out in hard batting conditions.

My heart went out for him when he was the last man standing in that century innings and how he was trying to farm the strike to protect the number 11 and score quickly. This was a job unfamiliar to him, but he did it successfully with the same dedication as when he defended.

The box was finally ticked for us and I suspect inside Pujara’s head too, the box that said that he was good for all conditions.

I believe that the foundation for that staggering performance in Australia was laid in Southampton. It was not one, but three hundreds against a world-class attack in Australia and Pujara finally got the acclaim he never got before.

Pujara made a series-winning impact with defensive batting in a modern world that believes attack is the only way to bat.

His feet in his stance are not as wide as they were in the Fletcher regime. He is slowly going back to his technique of 2010.

When he is uncertain he has a tendency to play the ball a bit too late, that seems to have improved too. But again it’s his mind that helps him conquer challenges more than his technique. Look at Rahane, a more gifted batsman than Pujara. He too suffered the same fate as Pujara, bad form leading to him being left out of the side, some may say unfairly.

It’s been almost three years that Rahane has not been able to get his game back on track, while Pujara has reached his peak after that turbulent phase in his career. There have been a few important fallouts of Pujara’s success. First and foremost, I think he has converted Virat into believing and respecting defensive batsmanship. He opened Virat’s eyes to what defensive batting brings to the table in adverse conditions.

Not just India, but the whole cricketing world took notice of Pujara’s performance. And I predict that the stock of the defensive batsmen in Tests will rise because of him, even if the format’s stock declines.

So what is it that makes Pujara special?

The obvious one is his unlimited reserve of mental strength. And the not so obvious is his nature as a human being, in sport we call it temperament.

It is that contented, calm nature of his, where even after he gets a 100 to come back into form, there is no brandishing of the bat at his detractors who may have written him off! Instead, there is only a smile. I find Pujara’s batting similar to believers worshipping God. Whether God blesses them or not, their daily worship continues.