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Indian Premier League 2021

More T20 tons than Buttler and Morgan combined: The possible cricketing reasons behind CSK’s Pujara buy

by Rohit Sankar 3 minute read

Cheteshwar Pujara was a surprising pick at the IPL 2021 auction, even eliciting warm round of applause from the room, but Chennai Super Kings may have reasonable reasons for their odd-looking buy.

Cheteshwar Pujara is no Jos Buttler or Eoin Morgan, but he has something the other two valued T20 stars don’t have: a hundred in the format.

Despite being unsold in the IPL for six successive seasons, Pujara has constantly put his name into the ring, and has expressed his wish to play in the IPL several times. His white-ball numbers are far from exceptional, but February 21, 2019 was his day in the limelight; a day when he showed that he too could play T20 cricket. Opening the batting for Saurashtra, Pujara slammed a 61-ball 100 – a strike-rate of 163.93 – in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy game against Railways. He ended the tournament with 260 runs in six matches at an average of 86.66 and a strike-rate of 131.31.

It was the last time he played T20s, and it turned out to be a marked improvement from similar stints earlier in his career. In three of the six games, he struck at a strike-rate of 140 or more. In one of the games he made runs at less than a run a ball, but his side were chasing 123 for a win and Pujara remained unbeaten on 42 off 48 balls as they crossed the line. In another, he made 10 off 17 balls, his last T20 innings, while chasing 100 in a high school ground in Indore where the track was turning square.

Chennai’s decision to buy Pujara could have stemmed from this stint in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament. With the IPL expected to be held in India this season, CSK could return to their fortress at the Chepauk in Chennai, where low-scoring games are the norm. In the 2019 season, when IPL games were last held in Chennai, there were five totals of less than 110 recorded. CSK won six of their eight home games, losing only to Mumbai (twice).

It is no secret that CSK’s team is built to maximise the home advantage they have in Chennai. Their inability to consistently win games in the UAE last season partly stemmed from the restrictions they have in a squad tailor-made for certain conditions. The mantra to try and win the half of the home games and then squeeze in a few wins away from home to qualify to the play-offs has worked wonders for CSK, who have made it to the play-offs in every single season played in India.

Pujara may not have the scoops and ramps of Buttler or the reverse sweeps of Morgan in his repertoire, but he is arguably one of the finest players of spin in the country. His white-ball credentials notwithstanding, for the low-scoring games CSK expect to be a feature in their dust bowl in Chennai, Pujara can be a trusted sheet anchor in a batting line-up that appears slightly brittle with MS Dhoni past his prime and Shane Watson retired.

The question, though, remains as to how CSK play Pujara when the likes of Ruturaj Gaikwad and Narayan Jagadeesan, both top-order batsmen with better T20 credentials, struggle for game time. By picking and choosing matches he appears in, or restricting him to just games played in Chennai, CSK could actually make this move work. But the thing is he need not even play, and could still contribute to the team.

Chennai love having experience in their side, infamously being dubbed ‘Dad’s Army’ for the average age in the side. At 33, Pujara lends enough of that, and even if he doesn’t play enough, he could be a valuable senior player helping the younger lot in the side in tackling the slow, low pitches.

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