There’s no doubt that Cheteshwar Pujara’s numbers in Tests are down. Over 43 innings between August 2012 and December 2014, Pujara averaged 50.41 with six hundreds and a strike-rate of 49.12. Since the 1 January 2015, however, the Saurashtra batsman has averaged 30.75 with just one hundred and a strike-rate of 42.39 over 30 innings.
Clearly something is wrong but the Indian team needs to back Pujara to fix it because while these numbers tell one story, they don’t tell the whole story. For example, in the calendar 2015, Pujara averaged 49.57 with one hundred and a strike-rate of 48.59 from eight innings, numbers very close to those he posted in the 43 innings following his recall to the Test team in 2014.
Pujara is also someone who works hard and has never taken his initial success for granted. He has tackled his susceptibility to the ball that seams into him – the flaw that precipitated his initial slump - and appears to have taken care of the problem on a technical level. The issue currently appears to be one of approach. Pujara burst on the scene as a free-flowing batsman who believed that once he was in the zone, he could manipulate the bowling at will.
“When you enter this zone, it is less about concentrating and more about forgetting, actually,” he told the Indian Express back in November, 2014. “When I get there, I forget about the crowd and the noise. And I also forget about the bowlers and their reputations. I forget everything, except the ball. At this point, everything happens on auto-pilot. My backlift, my strokes, my running between the wicket, everything is completely instinctive.”
“And how rarely does he get into this space, this hallowed zone? ‘Frequently,’ he replies, almost instantly. ‘Almost every time I cross 40. But sometimes as early as 25.’”
Right now, his batting appears to be more reactive than instinctive, which is understandable given that he has to find his way again. Currently, in one of sport’s many paradoxes, he may well be placing too high a price on his wicket. By cutting down on risk, Pujara is also cutting down on his opportunities to score runs.
The equation between jettisoning a player for poor form and backing him through a lean spell is a complex one and not easy to balance. You have to consider whether the player’s performance is hurting the team in the short run while also weighting up how much insecurity is affecting the player and whether losing him will hurt the team in the long run. It also matters how much the team and India selectors believe in the player.
For someone in Pujara’s situation, where doubt has spread to regions in which it did not previously exist, only runs will help. And runs can only come when a batsman is at the crease. What Pujara needs is time to find the right balance between defence and attack again.
That’s why India should give him as much time at the crease as the team can afford. A weak West Indies side that is still a long way from challenging India as equals offers the perfect opportunity to play Pujara without diminishing India’s chances of success in the series in a meaningful way. The potential benefits also add weight to the argument to keep playing him. An in-form Pujara would give India a terrific triumvirate at Nos 3-4-5 in the batting order and make it easier to play five bowlers.
In England in 2014, it seemed like the only time Virat Kohli could make contact with bat and ball was to edge the ball to the slips. He managed scores of 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7, 6 and 20 in those five Tests but India never dropped him. In his next series against Australia, he promptly made four hundreds in four Tests.
This is not to suggest that Pujara will turn out like Kohli but that form fluctuates and weaknesses can be addressed. Luck matters too. Had Roston Chase missed his shy at the stumps, there’s every chance Pujara would have gone on to make his half-century and who knows how many more after that.
To be sure, Pujara cannot be persisted with indefinitely. At some point, potential must transform into results. But he has earned a longer rope for now and there is no obvious candidate to replace him, despite KL Rahul’s third hundred in six Tests. Rahul needs to be groomed as an opening batsman, not shoe-horned into the side as a stop-gap measure.
It wasn’t so long ago that Pujara was being touted as the next great Indian batsman. At 28, he still has plenty of years left in the tank to live up to those expectations. Besides, Indian cricket is not so rich that it can afford to lose players of Pujara’s potential without fighting to realise it.