In nine overseas Tests in 2018, there was one particular instance wherein Cheteshwar Pujara wasn’t picked in the playing eleven. That was in Birmingham, the first Test in England, wherein Indian skipper Virat Kohli said he had a gut feeling about the top-order of Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul. India lost that Test by 31 runs.
After that game, you were left wondering what could have been. Surely, someone of the calibre of Pujara would have been to contribute those runs and make up the difference simply on account of his county experience. The argument against it was that he hadn’t scored enough County runs this past English summer. This logic was simply exasperating.
Pujara is that unique breed of batsmen of which very few are left in world cricket today. He plays only one format of the game, a purist really, and mirrors everything that is good about Test cricket even as the world is focused on slam-bang white-ball action.
He is someone who knows the significant value of time, which is still relevant in good old-fashioned Test cricket today. Someone who knows the art of grinding down an opposition, someone who has the wherewithal to brave out the conditions, someone who has enough experience to know which shot to play and at what moment – that is perhaps a simplest summation of the batsman Pujara is.
Through the 2018 overseas cycle, there have been many moments wherein the Indian batting line-up has simply failed to get going. At other times, if they have succeeded, it is mostly due to the single-handed efforts of Kohli. The others, including Pujara, failed to support him enough during the tours of South Africa and Australia.
Pujara scored 257 runs in four Tests in England. It was the third highest total for an Indian batsman in the series, after Kohli’s 593 and KL Rahul’s 299 runs, in five Tests each. Leave aside Kohli’s superhuman efforts, a direct comparison with Rahul shows that Pujara was more effective in scoring his runs than the opener. A majority of Rahul’s runs came in the final innings, while Pujara pitched in with a half-century in Nottingham, that helped India win the Test, and then followed it up with a hundred at Southampton to keep them fighting in the series.
Through this overseas cycle, Pujara has looked the part – never mind those two run-outs in South Africa, his half-century in the first innings at Johannesburg was priceless. In that vein, it wasn’t too different than his effort in the first innings in Adelaide today.
The pitches were different though. In Johannesburg, it was a raging green top. Here in Adelaide, a new summer, the pitch was a batting beauty. One, where India enjoyed their best opportunity in winning the toss, playing seven full batsmen, and opting to bat as well. And then they threw it all away, one by one, reduced to 86-5 and then 127-6 at one stage. There seemed no recovery possible from there – enter Pujara.
At Johannesburg, Pujara had scored his first run after nearly 50-odd deliveries, batting for over an hour. It was that sort of a wicket – every ball was a death knell and you needed time to figure out which one to play at and which shot to play indeed. Adelaide may have been different, but when the top four batsmen – Rahul, Vijay, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – all got out playing cover driver, it became clear that shot selection was going to be imperative on this wicket.
Pujara bided his time. He didn’t play an angry stroke for a long while. He batted, and then batted, and batted some more. In his 45-run partnership with Rohit Sharma, Pujara scored only 8 runs. While his partner concentrated on hitting sixes, and got out in the most horrendous manner possible, Pujara simply batted on.
Then came Rishabh Pant, hell bent on doing the same hara-kiri, until Pujara had a word with him. Thanks to his advice, they added a few more runs, yet it wasn’t until R Ashwin came to the crease that Pujara found someone who was able enough to bat in proper Test cricket fashion. Someone like Pujara himself, who doesn’t accelerate pointlessly, but instead watches and plays proper cricketing shots.
Here, you have to halt and consider Pujara’s overseas record. This is a batsman who averages 50.28 in Test cricket. This is a batsman who averages 61.86 playing Test cricket at home. This is a batsman who averages only 37.72 when he plays overseas Test cricket.
This is a batsman who always wanted to prove that there is no differentiation for him whether it is home or away Test series. In that light, he always wanted a good start in overseas series, so as to garner enough momentum, which would carry him through the tour. It happened once before – in 2013, when he struck a wonderful century at Johannesburg batting along with Kohli. Since that knock, his form dropped woefully.
Scoring this hundred at Adelaide is like a fresh breath of life in Pujara’s Test career, and underlines his value in this Indian team. He is the average Joe in a team of superstars, an immeasurable yardstick. And he finally has what he always wanted – a good start to an overseas tour.
His awe-inducing innings at the Adelaide Oval not only saved India the blushes, but might just have given them a fighting chance in this Test.
Also by the author:The mistakes that cost Kohli & co. at Brisbane