Pujara has not delivered with the bat in some time. Is it already time to look beyond him?
Cheteshwar Pujara is one of the best batsmen in the world in Test cricket. When it comes to playing defensively, there is almost no one who is as unbreachable as him. Despite all the good which is being said and written about India’s No. 3, it is his lack of runs in the last couple of years that has been a bit of a concern for the Indian team. And his dismissal in the first innings of the Nottingham Test was just the kick that was required for everyone to start talking about selection at no. 3.
After scoring 193 against Australia in Sydney in January 2019, Pujara has not got a single score of above 100. For someone who had been chunking centuries for fun, it is a bit of a drought. But, that is the case with Virat Kohli as well, and he has not scored a ton in either format since November 2019. But the issue here is that these two batsmen are possibly India’s most important ones in the middle order. No. 3 and no. 4 of any Test team houses their best batsmen, which again brings us to the question, whether Pujara should be replaced considering his lack of runs?
The answer to that question isn’t simple at all. For one, if the team management even decides to drop him, who comes in? It is easy to say that talented batsmen like Hanuma Vihari and KL Rahul can replace him. But, by doing that as well, India will put itself in danger of having someone at no. 3 who hasn’t had a fair share of innings at that position. For simply that argument, Pujara should be there on the side. He has played his fair share of innings in England and at times, been successful as well.
Pujara – the man of comebacks
During India’s tour of England in 2018, captain Virat Kohli had taken a bold step in dropping Pujara for the first Test. KL Rahul was called upon, but after the first match of that series, sanity was restored in the dressing room as Pujara came back at no. 3.
In the first innings of the second Test, he got run out for 1 after facing 25 balls. The second innings saw him play 87 balls, only to be bowled for 17 runs. In the third and fourth Tests of that series, Pujara played two vital knocks. If his 72 runs from 208 balls in Nottingham was good, his 132 not out in Southampton had the potential to be the series-changing innings. Despite that, three more Tests in England later, he finds himself short of runs and even short of confidence.
But, this is not the first time in his career that Pujara finds himself at a place where he desperately needs runs. Prior to the 2018 England tour, India had faced with a problem of plenty and dropped Pujara for the first Test as discussed earlier. He had faced a similar kind of crisis on the Australian tour in 2014-15 when Rohit Sharma was sent at no. 3 in the last Test in Sydney after Pujara had a run of low scores.
It took injuries to the openers for him to make a resounding comeback in 2015 on the Sri Lanka tour when he played a series-defining knock of 145 not out. He was dropped once again on the 2016 West Indies tour for a Test after Kohli felt his 159-ball 46 in Jamaica was too slow. He made a comeback once again later that year with runs in the home season.
The lack of first-class cricket
Now, there was something similar in all of these comebacks. After that Australian tour, he arrived in India and played for Saurashtra, scoring a brilliant hundred. That was the preparation for the 145 which later went to play. After getting dropped in the West Indies, Pujara came home, became the leading run-getter in the Duleep Trophy (by scoring a 166 and an unbeaten 256) which took place in September. This got him ready for the long home season, where he averaged 62.
This is how Pujara thrives. People often see his 18 hundreds, but what people don’t notice is every time he has scored runs for India in Tests, it has been after some quality first-class knock. Even ahead of the 2018 tour of England, he had a stint with Nottinghamshire in 2017 and with Yorkshire in 2018. His numbers weren’t too good for an international batsme=n but he had the match practice which was essential for that 72 and 132 in Nottingham and Southampton, respectively. Pujara’s last first-class game for Saurashtra, on the other hand, was before the pandemic started and since then at the domestic level, there hasn’t been any first-class match.
IPL 2021 and the county stint which never happened
In the early part of 2021 when Pujara had returned from Australia, there were rumors of him going for another county season with Warwickshire. That deal never got closed because Chennai Super Kings bought for the IPL 2021, a season where the franchise would have least needed him. The deal at Warwickshire was eventually signed by Vihari, who scored exactly 100 runs in his six innings.
The question which needs to be asked is, was Pujara better off going for the county season rather than trying his luck at the IPL? Players like Kohli don’t obviously have a choice and it is quite clear, but for the Pujaras of this world, the question needs to be asked if they are better off prioritizing first-class cricket ahead of the T20 league where they will more often than not be on the benches?
Pujara’s number in SENA countries
Be patient, runs will come
The counter-opinion would be that it is harsh to criticize one of the best batters India has had in recent times for just one bad knock. True. Facing James Anderson is not easy. The man has more than 1000 wickets with the red-ball. It is not going to be easy.
On top of that, the conditions in Trent Bridge on Thursday were ideal for him to get some wickets. He is tailor-made for conditions that were on offer. And it is simple when you go against a legendary player such as him, there are going to be times when he gets the better off. And the ball with which he got out was an absolute peach. It did not do much, but just that bit which was enough to induce an edge by deceiving the batter. There is almost nothing a batter can do if Jimmy is in such a form.
If India has to beat England this time, Pujara has to play a massive role. Dropping him would be a poor decision. But he has to do what he does best. What he did in Australia, i.e. tiring the bowlers down in hot conditions can’t be replicated here. But with a four-man attack, England will struggle to keep their temperament together if Pujara manages to bat long. He may not be great against seam and swing as he is against pace and bounce. But, at no. 3, there is no one better equipped than Pujara to play in this Indian team. Everyone around has to be patient, just like how he is while batting.