Cheteshwar Pujara has been helping India see off the new ball, but here in England, more than anywhere else, India could use a Pujara who converts those steady starts, writes Rohit Sankar.
Let’s clear it out at the onset. Cheteshwar Pujara is an incredible Test player; the unassuming rock of India’s batting line-up, and arguably the fulcrum around whom India’s batting success, in their era of Test dominance, is based upon.
Not long ago, Pujara had Josh Hazlewood swearing in frustration, Pat Cummins naming him the “hardest one” to bowl to and the usually smug Nathan Lyon admitting he “flies under the radar”. It is universally accepted, signed off by the Aussies themselves, that Pujara is a pain in the back for opposition sides.
He sees off the new ball and sets the game up for the likes of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant in the middle-order and when he does carry on until Pant is at the crease, we get to see an incredible tug of war between two opposing forces of Test batting.
That template, the one where Pujara sees off the new ball, has worked like magic in the World Test Championship. His batting average, which sits below 30 in the cycle, has rarely been brought up even by critics. Only six others have faced more balls in the WTC than Pujara. Only one other batter in the top 15 of most balls faced in the WTC averages lower than him.
India don’t really need Pujara to score. Let’s re-phrase that a bit. India don’t really need Pujara to score, usually. They have the batters to do that all around him. But, here in England, against the Dukes balls, which moves around throughout its lifetime of 80 overs, there’s no ‘seeing off’ period. Here, when you are looking to survive, and not score, even off deliveries that are normally accepted as in the batters’ zone, the inevitable corker does not escape you.
At Southampton, Pujara was greeted with one such from Trent Boult, the ball swinging in extravagantly to catch him on the back foot.
A highlights reel of Pujara’s dismissals in the WTC will have you believe he has received an unfair share of unplayable deliveries. The reality, though, is that when you stay long, good bowlers tend to produce several of those peaches, and one of them eventually catches up with you.
This was summed up by Kyle Jamieson in the post-day press conference in two ways. He spoke of Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill putting New Zealand off their plans by moving down the track early on, thus forcing them to lose their length a bit, and then went on to explain what he perceived was a way to bowl in England.
“I think especially in England with the way the ball does tend to move around throughout the innings that you don’t want to allow guys to put you off the area,” Jamieson said.
Putting this the other way around, Pujara rarely puts a bowler “off the area”. There’s the constant invitation to throw missiles – he’s been hit on the head four times no less in the last few Tests – from any length, at him, a majority of which he shields off with his immaculate resolve. On Saturday, it seemed like the rest of India’s top-order had adopted the Kohli mantra from the 2018 England tour: moving towards the ball, than letting it come to you.
It reflected enormously in the opening stand between Rohit and Gill, and then again when Kohli chose to bat well outside his crease and intercepted the ball quite early. In contrast, Pujara was content playing late, with soft hands, and letting the ball come to the bat. There’s no faulting the template. It’s what has brought him success in the past.
But in an era where Test match batting is getting tougher by the day, Pujara’s method rarely works beyond seeing off the sheen of the new ball. That period is non-existent in England, as stated before.
A recent ESPNCricinfo article explains why carrying on after a start is more difficult in some countries than others and it’s significantly more difficult in England for away batters, partly because of the Dukes ball, which is only used here and in West Indies now, and partly because of the conditions, and even if by a smaller measure, the quality of the bowling.
Southampton is a venue that has seen the best of Pujara before. In 2018, when he hit a brilliant hundred in the fourth Test against England, he was the first top-order batter from either India or England to make a fifty-plus score in that Test. There, he started off with a similar template, making three off the first 30 balls, before driving Sam Curran, upper-cutting Stuart Broad and thrashing James Anderson past point to make 22 off the next 26 balls.
This is Pujara’s. Just two scoring shots, with all but one full ball being dots. pic.twitter.com/rPP6avCOXr
— Rohit Sankar (@imRohit_SN) June 20, 2021
Throughout that innings, Pujara ‘cashed in’, something he never did in this innings once the customary settling in was done. He scored off just two deliveries – one each in the 4-6m full length and above 8m short length – in his entire innings. In contrast, while Rohit and Gill were extremely cautious – the duo did not score a single run off good length (6-8m) balls – they both scored when there were full or short balls on offer.
Pujara has been exemplary in setting the platform for the middle-order to score. But, with Kohli, who despite looking outrageously good several times in the recent past, including on day two, not getting those big scores and Rahane’s form being erratic, India need Pujara to carry on from his starts. He has shown in the past that he has the gears to do so, and on this England tour, more than ever, India need him to leverage it.
Subscribe to the Wisden Cricket YouTube channel for post-match awards, player interviews, analysis and much more.