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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Cheteshwar Pujara takes India to respectability at Sydney

He deserves a good sleep ~ and he would wonder, how much is written in tomorrow’s newspapers hailing him as the ‘wall’ and rock-solid man – at Sydney, on day 1, he has a well-compiled century despite body blows ~ a man who has made 5233 runs with 17 (+ 1 today) centuries .. .. .. and he has played in 5 One dayers !! .. Life has not been all that easy, critics not so friendly and selectors not so consistent in picking or supporting him ~ he has braved the odds ! to be hailed as most dependable batsman,  best player of spinners and the man who puts a huge price tag to his wicket ~ Cheteshwar Pujara.

A decade ago, in 2008  Triple-centuries seem to come by every other game for him.   He scored two in one week in the CK Nayudu Under-22 tournament,  and became the first Saurashtra batsman to make a triple ton. His partner in the run-fest, Ravindra Jadeja, too made huge runs.     A couple of years later, in Oct 2010, he made his debut against Australia at Bangalore, made 4 in the first innings.   Then  his outstanding 72 in the second essay  set up a seven-wicket win. Guided in the end by Sachin Tendulkar, the hosts cruised to their target of 207 to confirm the 2-0 series triumph, while Australia slid to fifth of the ICC rankings.    When Virender Sehwag fell early in the chase, the match seemed to be heading for similar drama to the final day in Mohali, where the wounded 114-Test veteran VVS Laxman dragged his side over the line. That there was no similarly tense finish was due to the work of Pujara, who was in his first Test but showed the kind of confidence expected from an old hand.   Unexpectedly promoted to No. 3 following a first-innings effort that lasted three balls, Pujara betrayed no nerves and drove his third delivery handsomely to the cover boundary off Mitchell Johnson.

Life was not all that easy and in between he too was dropped from Test squad.  In Oct 2016  Speaking at a press conference for the first time since he was dropped for what came to be known in public as slow strike rate in the Tests in the West Indies, Cheteshwar Pujara may have come prepared for a question on the scoring rate. It was naughtily put too. Pujara was asked what he thought of India's strike rate on a day that New Zealand bowled with discipline to keep the hosts under three-an-over even though they lost just the three wickets. Pujara saw the slower ball early; he could have hit it out of the park, but chose to respectfully block it.

This year no team picked up Pujara at his base price of INR 50 lakhs at the IPL auction in late December. Now he has shut every critic making them understand that it  is impossible to put a price tag to his Test performances. Having to bat within the first few overs every Test, Pujara has played his role to perfection by blunting the new ball and ensuring that the Australia bowlers bowled as many overs as possible.

Pujara's ability to play long innings has put him in another elite list - he is the first batsman since Geoffrey Boycott in 1970-71 to face more than 200 balls in an innings on four occasions in a series in Australia. A lot of players have had successful tours of Australia but very few have blunted the bowling like Pujara has. While everyone of us are appreciating, public memory is short lived !!

In Aug 2018 Former batsman Mohinder Amarnath lamented India's embarrassing  innings and 159-run defeat in the second.  He had some nasty words stating that the  other problem was excessive defence. Cheteshwar Pujara, stops scoring runs and becomes too defensive was the comment, not the fact that he was playing without getting out as other batsmen did.  Only in the last match at Melbourne, former Australia skipper Ricky Ponting found India's slow batting baffling in the third Test and  went on air that Cheteshwar Pujara's 106 off 319 balls may end up being the reason for their defeat. India scored at less than two-and-a-half runs an over for most of the first two days of the Test, registering the slowest first-innings score of more than 300 in Australia for three decades. Pujara consumed 319 deliveries for his 106-run knock as none of India's top five batsmen scored at a strike rate of more than 50.

Those with some memory would recall that when India played England at Edgbaston (1st test in Aug 2018) – the Team management (Captain and Coach Ravi Shastri)  dropped Cheteshwar Pujara. The decision took many by surprise as Pujara has been one of the mainstays in the Indian batting lineup in Test cricket.  India opened with left hander Dhawan and Murali Vijay followed by KL Rahul, who replaced Pujara.   Offering a new perspective in this matter, former Australia cricketer Michael Hussey feels said it showed India is a strong team with good batting lineup.  "The dropping of Pujara from the squad for the first test (against England) is real good sign of strength for India. It suggests the India is a good side with strong battling lineup," he said. Hussey said Lokesh Rahul might have got into the playing eleven because of his current form, which is better than Pujara.

In 11 Test matches in 2016, Pujara had scored 836 runs including three hundreds. The next year, Pujara was more phenomenal. In 11 Tests in 2017, he scored 1140 runs and hit four hundreds. .. .. that was dissected as those  runs mostly came at home. In 2016 and 2017, the only Test series India played away from home were in West Indies and Sri Lanka.  In 2018, before the England tour, India had played four Tests including three in South Africa. Pujara played all four and scored 135 runs with a lone half-century against Afghanistan.  The critics had field day describing that Pujara's numbers in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa are abysmal. As a number three batsman, he was expected to score big runs consistently and was  expected to fill the big boots of Rahul Dravid.  In England in 2014, Pujara managed only 222 runs from five !

Now bury all that past and start heaping praise on Pujara.  Scorecard reads : India 4 for 303 (Pujara 130*, Vihari 39*, Agarwal 77) on day 1 at Sydney and today Cricinfo writes :   he  just bats and bats and bats. Cheteshwar Pujara came to the crease in the second over and refused to budge until the end of the day. He has faced 1135 balls in this series. As a consequence of that, he's made 458 runs. One hundred and thirty of them came in Sydney where India have established a position of strength to perhaps take more than a share of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

Australia would believe they haven't quite lost that much ground. They'll be thrilled to have kept Virat Kohli to a mere 23 and Ajinkya Rahane for 18. And considering they went in with only four specialist bowlers, a score of 4 for 303 at stumps is a reflection of some decent work. The only problem is that India keep finding ways to be better.  One of the men best suited for that game, Cheteshwar Pujara, had to be publicly defended by the then-India coach. "As far as I am concerned, strike rate is for bowlers and not for batsmen in Test cricket," Anil Kumble had to say. That was after the third time Pujara had been dropped. He would be dropped in England a year later. There would be calls to move on from him during the home series. One more truly defensive batsmen was at risk of ending up not being counted among the best of his era. Then he travelled to Australia. As things stand at stumps on the first day of the last Test of the series, Pujara has faced 1135 balls, and has spent a little under 30 hours at the crease.

On Thursday, Pujara completed his 18th  Test century, his fifth against Australia, on the opening day of the fourth Test in Sydney. Pujara's knock ensured India ended the day in a commanding position.  Pujara has not only scored the centuries but has also played series-defining knocks over India's last two series against Australia. India were on the verge of losing the Test, and possibly the series, on more than one occasion, but Pujara's knocks saved them. His 92 in the second innings in Bengaluru, when the team was trailing by 87 runs, and his marathon 202 in Ranchi, when India were more than 120 behind, were instrumental in beating Australia at home. In the current series, Pujara ensured India got to a respectable score after a poor start in Adelaide. With the openers failing consistently, Pujara has had to walk in more often than not in the first five overs. Pujara became only the third Indian to score three or more centuries in a series in Australia. Virat Kohli and Sunil Gavaskar ar the only others to have achieved this.

Well played Pujara ~ convert this into a big double !!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
3rd Jan 2019.

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