Sometimes watching an out-of-form batsman showing shades of his own former self after a long period of struggle can bring unparalleled joy. Watching Cheteshwar Pujara unfurl some of his old magic in the 2016-17 Duleep Trophy brought belief and hope, along with unbridled happiness, for his fans. This was the Pujara of old — the confident Pujara; the Pujara who mixes caution with aggression; the Pujara who loves his "Daddy hundreds".
From being someone touted as the cornerstone of the Indian batting line-up, one christened the next "Wall", to fighting for his place in the starting XI, Pujara's career has gone through a see-saw ride in the last couple of years. He started off in solid fashion, averaging 66.25 in his first 17 Tests with six centuries, including a double ton. But his career then started going south, with the result that his average in the last couple of years is less than half of what he managed before that. In his last 30 innings, he averages just 30.75 with one century.
The slide began during the 2013/14 New Zealand tour, where he averaged just 15 in two Tests, and the poor form extended on the subsequent England tour as well, where he averaged 22.20. On the tour of Australia later that year, when he managed just one half-century in six attempts, the Indian team finally lost patience with the Saurashtra batsman, dropping him for the Sydney Test.
Rohit Sharma's white-ball exploits certainly didn't help Pujara's cause, and the two have been battling for a place in the starting XI ever since, although neither has done anything substantial to guarantee a place in Virat Kohli's team.
As his form dwindled, Pujara's approach also seemed to change. Earlier, there used to be a good mix of caution and aggression in his batting, but caution then started taking precedence. He started going into a shell to start off, and that seemed to bring about his downfall. From 52.21, his strike rate dipped to 42.39 in the last two years since 1 Jan, 2014.
Of late his problem has been converting starts. He has got himself 20s, but has struggled to go beyond. It seems like he's batting with the confidence of a 12-year-old schoolboy about to ask his crush if she wants to go to the movies with him. The pressure of losing his spot in the side seems to be lingering inside. It was witnessed against West Indies during the Jamaica Test, where on the second day, he struggled to score a single run for an hour. He finally got off the mark on the final ball of the first hour of play, which epitomises everything that's wrong with Pujara.
And it's not like his form has completely deserted him. He did score a brilliant unbeaten 145 against Sri Lanka, opening the batting on a difficult, seaming pitch. But he fizzled out once again after that.
So how did he go from being a man who got the Daddy hundreds, to one who wasn't getting starts, to one who is now struggling to convert his starts?
In his last eight Test innings, he's faced 78.42 percent dot balls (509 out of 649). From the start of his career in October 2010 to January 2014, Pujara's strike-rate in the first 40 balls of his innings stood 48.29, but from the 41st ball, it rose to 53.96. In the last two years, however, he has scored at a strike-rate of 40.97 in the first 40 balls, improving it slightly to 43.70 from the 41st. He is clearly struggling to maintain momentum, and there has been a clear change in approach and mindset.
This wasn't the Pujara who cruised his way to an 89-ball-72 against Australia on Test debut, coming in at a tricky position and helping India chase down 207. Or the batsman who thwarted England's spin attack four years ago, scoring 135 on a Wankhede turner with a stolid display.
Which is why his knocks of 166 against India Green and an unbeaten 256 against India Red in the Duleep Trophy could prove crucial for his career. This might have given him the much-needed confidence boost ahead of a long home season.
It was a free-flowing Pujara we witnessed, one who scored at strike-rates of 59.28 (166 off 280) and 70.52 (256 off 363). The back foot game stood out. At one point, he was pulling good length deliveries to the fence. He looked at home at the crease, having looked like a little lost boy in the recent past.
It's now imperative that Pujara carries this momentum forward into a series against New Zealand, and along with it this approach too. With a change in Test captains, there has been change in tactics. Kohli's love for aggression has given Rohit Sharma a longer rope, but the Mumbai batsman hasn't been able to capitalise on it. He averages just 23.5 in his last 16 Tests, and also didn't have a great time in the Duleep Trophy. And while most Mumbai batsmen made merry in the warm-up match, Rohit could again manage just 18.
Given Rohit's dwindling form, Pujara, thanks to his domestic exploits, might be favourite to start in the Kanpur Test. What might infuse more confidence in Pujara is the fact that he averages 64.39 in India. The last time he played against New Zealand at home, he averaged 72. He's been excellent against spin too, averaging 53.65 overall and 50.87 in India against spinners.
Since 1 Jan, 2014, Pujara has been dropped from the starting XI five times. He's been oscillating in and out of the side for a long time now. The New Zealand series is his best chance to seal his place in the Test side. However, the key to success will be his approach.
"There is a difference between batting positively and aggressively, and being an enforcer," Pujara told Cricbuzz in September last year. "I think what Virat meant was the No 3 batsman needs to play positively. At the end of the day, you are playing a Test match and by what he had said, it doesn't mean that you need to take a run off every ball but you need to have a positive mindset where you can dominate the bowlers and not the other way round. I am completely aware of what Virat wants and there is no communication gap between us."
For a long time, that positivity seemed to be missing from Pujara's game until he fired in the Duleep Trophy, and it is this positive mindset and approach which will help him seal his place in the Indian side.
With stats inputs from Sampath Bandarupalli and Umang Pabari