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South Africa v India

Cheteshwar Pujara is rightly under the scanner, but he has earned India’s backing

by Divy Tripathi 6 minute read

Divy Tripathi believes that Cheteshwar Pujara has shown enough throughout his career to be backed for India’s tour of South Africa and beyond.

Pujara’s run since his last Test hundred has been poor, with some calling for his exclusion from the India setup. If one were to look at the numbers, it is obvious that the Saurashtra player hasn’t done enough in recent times. He has played 24 Tests since his most recent Test century and has averaged 28.36 in that period.

His fall is a bit odd, given how the batter had just cemented his place in the India setup. Controversially left out during India’s 2018 tour of England, Pujara bounced back to be named Player of the Series in India’s 2-1 series victory in Australia in 2018/19.

Pujara was earmarked as Rahul Dravid’s replacement at number three at a young age, and impressed in home conditions as someone who found his feet going easy against spin, and one who could bat for long hours. After becoming a regular member of the side, he had a mixed run during India’s overseas odyssey across 2013 and 2014, doing quite well in South Africa, while fading away after a good start in England. One thing that stood sure though was that Pujara’s game was technically good, and he had the self-belief.

At the same time however, a change in team management meant that Pujara’s place, despite his decent run over the last few years, wasn’t safe anymore. Perhaps Kohli’s fearless India approach saw Pujara as being too tentative, maybe his strike-rate wasn’t filled with enough intent or there were other reasons, but Pujara was dropped time and again despite boasting an extremely good Test record.

After each exclusion Pujara walked back like he had a point to prove. He hit a match-winning 145 against Sri Lanka after being dropped in the first two Tests, put up a flurry of good scores in the home season that followed his exclusion from the Gros Islet Test in 2016, and followed his Birmingham omission with 278 runs at 39.71 during the 2018 England tour.

By this time the team management seemed to have understood the merit of Cheteshwar Pujara, and he got a full run Down Under in 2018/19. Pujara was easily the best batter on either side. He scored 521 runs at 74.42, smashing three hundreds, as India managed a historic series win in the country.

As 2019 set out, Pujara averaged 51.18 in Tests. 24 Tests and zero hundreds later, that number is below the 45-mark. But it’s been through this period that he’s, arguably, benefitted from the most support in his career.

It’s been an odd stretch. His ‘bad’ numbers weren’t really visible till the Australia tour. In 2019, he failed against the West Indies, but while he didn’t set the world alight, he did well at home. He scored 254 runs in six innings in a season that was dominated by India. After this, he didn’t score many in New Zealand, but was still the second-best India batter in a series where most struggled against the moving ball.

In the 2020/21 Australia series, too, where he scored 271 runs @ 33.87, there was merit in Pujara’s performance. In this series, he brought to fore the one positive feature that is often missed about his batting – his capability to soak in the pressure by refusing to give away his wicket. This capability to bat on and on and on has frustrated opponents time and again.

Just like in 2018/19 (he batted 1,258 deliveries in that series), he ensured that the Australia bowlers – who were not rotated at any point in the series – tired by the end of the series (928 deliveries faced). His crucial performances in Sydney and Brisbane, played a role in a one of the greatest Test series wins of all time.

Since then, the big scores have continued to evade Pujara but he has shown sparks of his best form . He made a good 73 in Chennai, battled hard for 91 at Leeds, and very recently looked in good touch in the second innings at Mumbai.

The South Africa tour will be a tough tour for India, and they’ll need all of Pujara’s experience to come good. A man who has managed to fight back each time he was written off, now needs to stand up after being backed by the management. A team player to the core, Pujara would love to do the same when some tough runs are needed from him.

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