Cheteshwar Pujara scored 818 runs from 28 innings at an average of 29.21 in the 2019-21 World Test Championship cycle. For a run-machine like Pujara, these are unusual numbers and a majestic fall from grace considering the highs of 2018 when he bored the Australians to death. As India gear up for the first World Test Championship final, the bare statistics must be kept in mind as much as the most important trait that he brought to the table - a strike rate of 36.8 over a course of 2222 balls. In England, biding time comes at a premium and there is no trade-off for Pujara’s forbearance.
Australians realised the same. Despite apparent criticism over his strike rate in the last Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Pujara didn’t budge, neither did he blink. In the same country where his success defined one of Indian cricket’s biggest achievements a couple of years ago, Pujara stood tall to foil the more-celebrated dashers. His defence in the face of defiance kept India on an even keel before Rishabh Pant’s more dazzling batting stole the show.
“I think we should appreciate what Cheteshwar Pujara has been able to achieve for India. It’s not always about maintaining a strike rate and in Test cricket, you need different kinds of planning and different kind of players to fit into your team,” Sachin Tendulkar recently said in an interview with PTI.
“It’s like five fingers in your hands. Each finger has a different role and Pujara is an integral part of our team. I really like what Pujara has done for India. Rather than scrutinizing his innings, we should be appreciative of what he has done. for India.”
However, stoicity only matters so much and a cricketer’s ultimate currency is the Runs - the one count Pujara wouldn’t be too happy to revisit. Of the 818 runs, 387 came in India at an average of 32.25 - a difference of over 24 runs per innings from his career average in home conditions. In the 2019 home season, he got starts in almost every game, however, failed to convert any of them to a three-figure mark. Overall, his nine half-centuries in the first WTC cycle is the second-highest for a country at No.3, behind Australia’s 11. It is surprising because India dished out some of the flattest decks for the South Africa and Bangladesh series where Mayank Agarwal and Rohit Sharma were putting runs like plucking apples from a garden.
Weak forward defence and an inherent problem against the inswingers turned out to be the bigger reason for the downfall which the bowlers were happy to exploit. As surprising as it may sound, Pujara was dismissed a colossal 18 times on the forward defense - four more than second-placed Joe Root. Azhar Ali is third on the list despite being dismissed exactly half the number of times as Pujara was. For a player who swears by his defence, this is an unusual conundrum.
The Indian No.3 struggled big-time against balls seaming into him. Facing 426 in-seamers, the Saurashtra batsman could amass just 77 runs at an average of 12.83. He was dismissed 6 times in the process which tells you why Pat Cummins had the wood over him throughout the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
With scores of 11, 11, 54, and 24, Pujara was sucked out in New Zealand by the likes of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, and Kyle Jamieson as the trio made him huff and puff on the surface. His defense was unfounded, his lack of assertiveness against swinging balls put him in a dire situation and then his unusual loss of patience after a decent start. It all came together to haunt him as a pack before the Covid-19 pandemic canceled his plans of piling his trade on the county circuit. So much so that, among the 37 batsmen who scored over 500 runs in the first WTC cycle, Pujara’s average of 29.21 is the third-worst.
Something had to give in Australia in the absence of Virat Kohli. However, in reality, nothing changed yet everything did. Taking a dynamic approach is the truism on the Australian cricket pitches. Pujara, however, was happy to stick to his own formula, which, even though didn’t yield him a lot of runs, helped India in a multi-faceted way. His partnership with Rishabh Pant was the unlikeliest of Jugalbandi ever - you need to be there to believe it. His knocks in Sydney and Brisbane couldn’t be quantified into bare statistics. Its impact goes much beyond that.
In Southampton, Pujara will once again be in the thick of things. The last time India were there, his unbeaten 132 set up India’s first-innings lead and gave them the hope of salvaging the series. How he stands up now to face the challenge will drive home the narrative and his reputation as India’s man for the crisis.