Having averaged a paltry 28.03 in the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) cycle, and having endured twin failures in the final against New Zealand, there was pressure on Cheteshwar Pujara as the right-hander strode out to bat in the first Test against England in Nottingham. Despite a promising start in the fourth innings, it was cut short by rain. The 33-year-old, like he’s done in the past couple of years, looked all at sea against pace during 16-ball stay in the middle during the first innings where he eventually nicked one off James Anderson to further mount pressure on himself.
Currently, in the worst run of his career, clamours for Pujara to be dropped have gotten louder and, despite him being the second-most capped batsman in the side, many believe that the second Test at Lord’s could very well be the veteran’s last opportunity, at least in the near future, to prove that he belongs.
Pujara has not posted a score of significance since his fifty on the final day of the Gabba Test, and It’s been over two years since the Saurashtra batsman last got to the three-figure mark. Thus heading into Lord’s, former England skipper David Gower believes the 33-year-old will inevitably be under pressure come the second Test.
“If you’re in a key position at No.3, however much you’ve done before in your career, there comes a moment when it’s neither working for you nor the team, you will get a tap on the shoulder saying, ‘You know what, it’s time for a rest.’ This is the pressure that everyone has to exist under if you want to maintain a career at the top level,” Gower exclusively told Cricket.com ahead of the second Test.
“You can have a bad day out or an overall bad series, but you are expected to contribute more often than not. That’s the pressure that will be on him (Pujara) as he starts the game at Lord’s.”
However, the 64-year-old believes that Pujara, at the very least, is capable of ‘having a good day’ at the office. Gower reckons, for Pujara to get runs under his belt, the 33-year-old, who has only faced over 100 balls once since the Brisbane Test against Australia, will need to spend ample time in the middle to give himself the best chance of going big.
According to the former England skipper, it is imperative for players to spend time in the middle as, he believes, batsmen’s judgement starts to improve once they get through the initial lottery phase against the new ball.
“Going back to conditions, anyone playing at Nottingham would know that the ball that’s in the hands of a good bowler on a pitch that’s doing things will go past the edge and will eventually get the edge. That’s one of the certainties in life. So it’s a bit of luck that gets you through the first bit but once you get settled, then your judgement gets better."
"That’s what good players know will happen - the infinitesimal judgement outside off-stump will improve. Your judgement gets sharper when you’re set. If you survive 30-40 minutes, you can build on that. That’s what any batsman, including Pujara, would want to do,” Gower said.
“We know how determined he is. He is not going to set the scoreboard rattling around - he is going to make runs at his pace. He has done it in Australia; he has done it in the past here. There’s this thing inevitably sometimes with players, where when you’re under pressure, you might have 3 or 4 bad knocks and you might drag one out and get a 60 or 70 or a hundred. It does not mean you are back to your best, it means that you had a good day. And Pujara can certainly do that,” he added.
But while Pujara is certain to feature in the second Test, starting Thursday (August 12), one senior member who could warm the bench for a second Test running is Ravichandran Ashwin.
The 34-year-old was left out of the first Test at Trent Bridge due to the conditions on offer, which were skewed in favour of the seamers, and after the game skipper Virat Kohli hinted that India would continue to follow the ‘one spinner’ template if the conditions require them to do so. The Lord’s wicket, too, is expected to not bring spinners too much into play, and thus Gower claimed that, if it came to him, he would pick Jadeja over Ashwin for the second Test in a row, owing to the former’s three-dimensional capability.
“Possibly not (on bringing Ashwin back), on the grounds that if there is grass and they decide to stick to just one spinner, Jadeja does the job. And he does a really good job. You saw the way he batted, which was invaluable, and he did turn one on a pitch that was built for seamers and he is a very canny cricketer."
"I love watching Jadeja play. He’s got that something about him - with the bat he is exciting, with the ball he knows what he’s doing and in the field, he’s a brilliant fielder. So if there isn’t space for two spinners, then I fear Ashwin will be carrying drinks,” Gower said of Ashwin.
In contrast, however, while India forced their off-spinning all-rounder off the starting XI, the hosts, earlier this week, drafted Moeen Ali into the squad days ahead of the second Test. Ali last played Test cricket in February and was drafted into the side in the midst of The Hundred, but skipper Joe Root hinted that the all-rounder might feature at Lord’s.
Ali being drafted into the side would mean one of Lawrence or Bairstow missing out, and Gower reckoned that, if it were to him, he would leave out young Dan Lawrence, whose technique he felt is too loose to succeed against a quality pace unit like India.
“Not Bairstow to me because he actually looked in pretty good touch. He made the adjustments from being the leading batsman for Welsh Fire and played a Test-match-style innings and looked better than anyone around him apart from Joe Root. The fact that he didn’t score big runs was a shame. So Bairstow keeps his place for me."
“Lawrence will be in and out of the team, I think, for the next few seasons, very good prospect. But he is an attacking batsman with a slightly loose technique, which might be a problem against a really good attack like India. Therefore it could be him that misses out. Which means you strengthen the bowling by bringing in an all-rounder,” Gower said of England’s team composition.
But despite acknowledging that Ali would, in all likelihood, feature in the second Test, the former England skipper lashed out at the ECB for hastily drafting in a player who, only two days ago, was playing white-ball cricket, captaining Birmingham Phoenix in The Hundred.
Jonny Bairstow, too, was picked in the Test side based on white-ball form, and Gower described the whole situation as ‘bonkers’, claiming that it is bizarre to force white-ball cricketers into the Test side and expect them to be Test-match ready.
“England, by the looks of it, have made one change (Moeen Ali) so they might be looking for a spinner who can bat a bit. But it’s bizarre. Yet we, and the ECB, have a system whereby we have a marquee Test series - between two of the best sides in the current era - and yet we’ve dragged someone in who has been playing The Hundred for the past couple of weeks, smashing the ball wearing multi-coloured clothing."
“They’re thinking that he might slot in just like that, bowl some tidy off-spin, score 50 or 60 runs with the bat and change everything entirely. So this is the bizarre situation we’re in, currently - you try and cope with the pressure of playing Test cricket in the midst of a crowded schedule. The whole thing is totally bonkers.”
Not just the white-ball picks, England are also currently facing issues with their top three - Sibley, Burns and Crawley - all of whom are primarily considered to be red-ball specialists. Neither Sibley, Burns nor Crawley were able to lay down a marker in the first Test at Trent Bridge, and there are currently whispers that one of the three could make way for Haseeb Hameed, who ahead of the first Test struck a fine ton against India representing County Select XI.
Gower observed that both Burns and Sibley had traits that were laudable, but stressed that, among the three, it is only Crawley who strikes him as a long-term prospect that could thrive at the highest level with a few technical tweaks.
“We’ve seen quite a bit now, of all three of them. They’ve been playing cricket for a couple of years and the observations are basically this: both Burns and Sibley have a technique you wouldn’t teach your dog. They both look completely out of place at the highest level. None of them win prizes for style, but they have one or two attributes that compensates for it. Burns is a real battler - he’s brave, he’s gutsy, he’s a really good attitude - while Sibley has really good concentration. Sibley, in particular, somehow needs to learn to score runs."
“These are not batsmen who we will see in England all-time teams. These are people who happen to be the product of the age - it looks horrible, but if it works then it’s a miracle. Whereas Crawley, who is having a bad run, and inevitably that gets to any individual at some stage."
You can’t just shrug it off forever. Yet he at least, with one or two minor things that can be fixed looks like a player. If you saw 30 seconds of the three of them, I would say Crawley looks like a player, the other two in the bin. It does a disservice to their character and determination. I have to admire that but this is one of the problems we have at the moment,” Gower said of England’s top 3.
The wicket at Trent Bridge was, rather unsurprisingly, seam-friendly, with the curators leaving 10mm of grass. How much grass the curators will leave behind for the second Test remains to be seen, but a picture from Tuesday (August 10) that was doing rounds on Social Media suggested that the visitors might once again have to contend with a green-ish wicket at the Home of Cricket, traditionally known to assist the seamers.
But few know Lord’s better than Gower, and the former England skipper claimed that pictures days before the actual game could be misleading, and asserted that there is every chance that the wicket could be devoid of grass come the morning of the Test.
“I always have a word of caution when people are talking about the amount of grass left on the pitch 2 or 3 days before the game. The number of times, over the last 40 years, I’ve seen pitches that are green 2 days before the game, and are brown on the morning of the game - I would have lost count years and years ago.
"Wait until the first morning. Even if there’s grass at Lord’s, even if they leave more grass than normal. The weather forecast suggests that it will be hot and sunny by the end of the week. So whatever grass is left will start to dry out and it will become a normal pitch.”