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Starring at the abyss, Pujara finds himself in phase of contradiction

Last updated on 02 Mar 2023 | 02:57 PM
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Starring at the abyss, Pujara finds himself in phase of contradiction

Since 2021, the right-hander has played out an average of 91.5 balls per dismissal in the second innings in Asia as compared to 58.8 in the first

So acquainted are we with India’s dominance in home Test matches that any aberration seems completely alien to us. After all, India have lost only two Tests at home since the 2012 Anthony de Mello Trophy, a record enviable for even the best of the cricket teams in history. India have achieved that, largely thanks to Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin’s uncanny belligerence, and then a bunch of batters who could school the opposition spinners without blinking an eyelid. 

The sheer power of this success story has made India the cricketing powerhouse that it is and throw in the talented bunch of pacers who have come through in the last half a decade, and we are looking at an all-conquering outfit.

If India go on to lose this Test in Indore, thus putting their chances in the World Test Championship final at slight risk, none of these facts will, however, change. It would just be their third loss in 11 years, but the cracks that have left themselves wide open would dictate the course of the narrative post the World Test Championship cycle. It is paramount and unavoidable - a few heads need to roll.

Will Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara be a part of that exodus? They are two of the worst-performing batters in the last three years. Surely, Kohli has a body of work that would keep him floating for a while. But things are not as straightforward for Pujara though. Age not being on his side and a consistent pattern of dwindling returns have made his position in the team untenable. The likes of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Sarfaraz Khan have made sure the conversation is far from easy for the national selectors.

Whatever the outcome might be, Pujara needs to be celebrated - surely for what he has done - but also for what he has continued to do so even during his lean patch. The amount of time he has put his body on the line to arrest the collapse resulted in saving multiple embarrassments which are forgotten while looking at his dwindling average of 31.82 in 22 matches since 2021. They need to be cherished a little bit more.

The Indore Test of 2022 will be stricken as another marker of Pujara lore. It is a wicket that turned viciously from the first session of the Test itself and knowing the kind of struggles he has had in the last three years, it was not a surprise that Pujara failed to capitalize on that. But if there is one silver lining in his performance during the given timeframe is his ability to make amends in the second innings in which the Rajkot boy averages 49.4 since 2021 as compared to 19.1 in the first innings.

India were bundled out for 109 in the first innings in Indore and after conceding an 88-run lead to Australia, they were staring at a pricey situation when the openers were gone for almost nothing on board. However, once again, Pujara came to the rescue with yet another half-century. It would have been easy to surge it off as a one-off occurrence but since 2021, Pujara has played out an average of 91.5 balls per dismissal in the second innings in Asian conditions as compared to 58.8 in the first innings, indicating a pattern there. 

But that begs the question what stops Pujara from planting the front foot forward at regular intervals or playing with a closed bat more often? It is not that he is not equipped, but reflex being down with age and pushing the muscle memory to rectify the error perhaps is not enough to get the work done at the international level. 

The Saurashtra No.3 has already played 16,024 balls in Test cricket and an average of 43.9 further tells you why there is a calmness around him. Pujara doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore but for the sake of Indian cricket, he needs to find himself amongst runs. 

Maybe the WTC final at The Oval will be his last hurray for India, for there is no incentive for the management to go back to him once again. But therein lies a strange dichotomy of a cricketer, who came, who saw and conquered the stage without undergoing any kind of metamorphosis. But if the vivid memory of Pujara’s last stage in international cricket is not that of a stoic man saving India by putting everything he has on the line, then that would be a severe understatement to the core. 

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