Pujara has come through the grind of domestic cricket and it shows
The world is again singing paeans to Sachin Tendulkar. Well deserved as they are, after his two fantastic innings in Bangalore to go with the 98 in the first innings at Mohali, letÃ¢Â€Â™s spare a thought for Cheteshwar Pujara.
There was good reason, backed by data, to send him at number three, in place of Rahul Dravid, in the second innings at Bangalore. DravidÃ¢Â€Â™s overall fourth-innings average is 44.59, but in the last four years it has been no more than 18.66, with no half-centuries in 12 innings, the highest being 38. In the absence of VVS Laxman down the order, it made sense to preserve Dravid in the hope that he would do a Laxman, if need be, later in the innings when the ball began to reverse swing. Had Dravid come at one-down and fallen early, it would have given the Australian bowlers a shot at a middle order that had Suresh Raina and Pujara, both greenhorns despite Raina having a Test century under his belt. If Pujara got some runs at one-down, the rest of the order, with Dravid at five, looked suddenly resilient.
In the event, Pujara went on to become only the fifth Indian batsman to score 50 or more in the fourth innings of a Test on debut. The last Indian to do this was Sunil Gavaskar in 1971.
The Sachin era has warped the way we look at age. But letÃ¢Â€Â™s not forget that Pujara was just a 22-year-old boy making his debut against the old, formidable enemy. He had already been undone in the first innings by a nasty grubber, which would have sown seeds of doubt in the minds of most men. He had been thrust in the role of his role model at number three, a crucial batting position in the most benign of situations, one in which the batsman needs to guard his wicket as well as score at a good pace to form the link between the openers and the middle order.
A daunting run chase was on at a ground not known to support fourth-innings chases, a ground where India had not won a Test in 15 years. The crowd had unwittingly put him under further pressure by cheering in the anticipation of local boy Dravid walking out when Virender Sehwag fell. The sight of Pujara walking out was as much a surprise to the crowd as to the fielding side.
By the time Pujara was done, he had more or less settled the outcome of the match, not just by the number of runs he scored but also the manner in which he had quelled every bowler.
That, possibly, is because Pujara has come through the grind. He has played domestic cricket for years and scored thousands of runs and many crucial centuries. It is time that the Indian cricket board began to value its own domestic cricket more than it does. There may be many more Pujaras honing their skills on rough grounds in front of empty stands.
ItÃ¢Â€Â™s not fair to make them watch as flashier, less accomplished, less skilled peers leapfrog them on the strength of… well, on the strength of what?