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Cheteshwar Pujara: 103 Tests, 103 Opinions

Last updated on 25 Jun 2023 | 02:27 PM
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Cheteshwar Pujara: 103 Tests, 103 Opinions

If the WTC final is the dead end to Cheteshwar Pujara’s Test journey, it will be the end of the road for a one-of-a-kind Test batter

One match can change a lot. It can make careers. It can end them. It can change the dynamics of a team upside down.

Does it ever drive you crazy

Just how fast the night changes?

In Cheteshwar Pujara’s case, he has lost his place to someone who was a stop-gap option heading into the World Test Championship final. Before the final against Australia at the Oval, Pujara was a certain starter. Parting himself from the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the 35-year old plundered 545 runs in the county circuit, averaging 68.1, including three hundreds in six games.


Yes, those runs were scored in Division 2 of the County Championship but Pujara’s heart was in the right place. He was more prepared for the WTC final than his teammates, having spent a good few months in England. 

Meanwhile, Ajinkya Rahane stayed at the IPL. Trying his luck with another new franchise, the Chennai Super Kings, the Mumbaikar plundered 326 runs at a strike-rate of 172.5 in a new avatar. Before that, he scored 634 runs in the 2022 Ranji season but 62.3% of those runs came against the underpar attacks of Assam and Hyderabad. 

It wasn’t the most ideal preparation, but Rahane was summoned back for the WTC final. The return was because of injuries to Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul and Rishabh Pant, and the fact that India didn’t want to risk a new batter in the England conditions against a potent Australian attack. It was almost a one-Test arrangement. 

The two players were in a similar situation in 2022. In the aftermath of the series defeat in South Africa, both Pujara and Rahane were dropped for the home series against Sri Lanka. Skipping IPL, Pujara accrued a hefty amount of runs in the County and returned for the impending fifth Test in England. Rahane, playing for Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL 2022, was benched for half of the games. 

Pujara played every Test for India between the two post-IPL one-off Tests in England in 2022 and 2023. Rahane stayed dropped for each one of them. 

In the WTC final, Pujara scored 14 and 27. Looking good in both innings, he was out in contrasting manners - shouldering arms to an inswinger in the first innings and trying an upper cut in the second. On the other hand, Rahane was the highest scorer for India in the final - scores of 89 and 46. 

In a strange turn of events, Pujara is now axed from India’s first assignment in the next WTC cycle - the two-Test series in the Caribbean. Rahane not only extends his Test career but is re-appointed as the vice-captain. In one Test, Pujara is staring at another possible dead end in his career while Rahane has a new lifeline. 

The ultimate discourse that one needs to score in red-ball cricket for a Test comeback has been superseded by factors like luck and timing. Rahane’s comeback, first as a batter and then as captain, sheds light on the lack of options created by the flagbearers of Indian cricket. There is also the Pat Cummins no-ball in the final. If the Australian skipper had planted his front foot half an inch behind when he had Rahane out lbw early in the innings, the fortunes of these two batters would be totally different. 

At the same time, Pujara couldn’t have timed his failure worse. He returned underwhelming knocks in an ICC event final post which a transition is imminent. At 35, Pujara was one of the oldest players in the squad. 

However, not everything can be attributed to the ‘uncontrollables’ for Pujara. 

Like other seniors in the side, the right-hander was undergoing a dip in his career for far too long. He finished 2017 averaging 52.96 in 54 Tests. Since then, his average came down to 43.6 in 103 Tests. That despite a stellar series-defining performance in Australia in 2018 when he averaged 74.4 across the four Tests. 

The dip became severe 2020 onwards, since when Pujara averaged only 29.69. Known to be an excellent batter of spin, the Rajkot-born averaged only 24.5 at home in this time period. 

Pujara’s contributions was about spending time in the middle than scoring runs. Also, they didn't come consistently enough. His balls-per-dismissal ratio fell from 110 in his first 54 Tests to 86.4 since 2018. 

His limited scoring range often kept his spot on the edge. The team management itself looked perplexed in its expectations from Pujara. There were talks of his intent. There were conversations about letting him play at his own pace. It led to some awkward dismissals -  run outs -  in both innings of the 2018 Centurion Test, standing out in this list. 

For a player who featured in over 100 Tests, there were always some kind of dialogue around Pujara. Since 2020, there isn't much to separate between him and Indian cricket’s eye candy - Virat Kohli

“What is the criteria of dropping him and keeping the others who failed?” asked Sunil Gavaskar in conversation with India Today.  

If the WTC final is the dead end to Pujara’s Test journey, it will be curtains for a one-of-a-kind Test batter. In the era of Bazball, he leans towards Geoffrey Boycott than Jonny Bairstow. Runs are an afterthought for him, and so is his backlift. Such is his discipline, he will happily cut out his favorable strokes if the conditions don’t allow them.

He reminds you of another Yorkshireman in Brian Close. During the 2021 Gabba Test, Pujara kept taking body blows when pulling the short-pitched deliveries from the Aussies wasn’t an option. During the Hyderabad Test in 2012, he dived to save his wicket despite a recent knee surgery and then went on to score a double hundred. 

Pujara was seen batting in the nets a day after his Test snub. He will feature in the upcoming Duleep Trophy for the West Zone and swiftly head back to county cricket to represent Sussex. There is a lot of red-ball cricket in front of him. An iffy series for any of the incumbent Indian batters can give him a lifeline like Rahane. 

But if we have seen the last of Pujara, which is highly probable, a career marked with an uneven trajectory and strict discipline will end with an uncharacteristic uppercut. 

"In a career that is marked by grace, style and beautiful batsmanship, it's a slog that has ended Rahul Dravid's career,” said Harsha Bhogle when Dravid drew curtains to his professional career. There would be a similar air around the uppercut played by Dravid’s successor. 

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