Cheteshwar Pujara is an unflappable character. He has seen highs and lows, both on and off the cricketing field. For nearly a decade now, he has been touted as the understudy of Rahul Dravid. His ability to concentrate for a substantial period of time, his old-fashioned attitude of grinding the bowler into dust and willingness to excel in the most torrid batting conditions set him apart from any other modern batsmen in India.
In many ways, Pujara has certainly justified the comparisons with Dravid and his numbers in Tests at the same stage of their careers are very similar. But there is one glaring difference and that is Dravid's record outside of Asia is far superior to that of Pujara's. However, the prince of Rajkot is no longer a newbie, and with a Test average in excess of 50.34, is sure to have a more productive outing in England.
At the age of 30, with over 50 caps under his belt and on his second tour of England, the upcoming five-match series presents a golden opportunity to prove to himself that he can accumulate runs in the British Isles like he has done for Saurashtra and India. Such is his mentality and personality that he will be his own worst critic and go to any lengths to rectify his record.
Four years ago, he started brightly but failed to capitalise on his starts and then eventually as the English rain set in at the back end of the tour, the ball seemed to find the edge of his bat more frequently than the middle of it.
Speaking about his lack of runs in England last time around Pujara told ESPNCricinfo in an interview "You feel there is something wrong with your batting, but ultimately it is not. I went through a phase where I was pressurising myself too much that I am not scoring runs, that I am getting out in 30s, 40s. I am someone who scores a double against England. Later on, I realised I have to accept my failure."
This time around Pujara is sure to be in a better place mentally and technically. For the last two summers, he has had county stints with Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire respectively. While his outing with Nottinghamshire last season proved to be fruitful enough, his form with Yorkshire this season was abysmal. He now faces the challenge of putting all that aside and focusing on the five-Test series that will be played on considerably better batting tracks.
There is also the additional expectation from Pujara to enhance his stroke play to suit the aggressive brand of cricket that Virat Kohli wants his troops to embrace. Pujara's two run-outs during the second Test in South Africa, where he tried to push himself out of his comfort zone to stretch for every run on offer, was a perfect indicator that he was trying to fit into the new culture. In England, there will be situations where he will need to be more expansive and meet the requirements of the team. It will certainly throw up a new challenge.
Add to that, there is stiff competition in the team and Kohli is hell-bent on playing personnel according to conditions. There is a fair chance that the more innovative and forceful KL Rahul could displace Pujara at No 3. It also means that if Pujara is picked in the playing XI, it could only be on spiteful pitches. The tour of England could muddle his mind and if runs don't flow of his willow or if he fails to up his scoring rate he could well be penciled in as a 'tough wicket' or a 'subcontinent specialist' in years to come.
But Pujara is unlikely to be perturbed by any situation and will be solely focused on letting his willow do the talking. As he stated after the South African tour, scoring in the 30s and 40s at times might not boost an average, but such scores can be influential in low-scoring contests. If there is a 22-yard strip during the five Test series that is green seamer, then it will an ideal opening for Pujara to further enhance his reputation as the man for the difficult circumstances.
Coincidently, Dravid was also 29 when he went on his second tour of England and returned with the nickname ‘The Wall' and 602, including three centuries, to his name. The champion batsman went on to cement his spot at No 3 for the next few years, both at home and abroad. Pujara would love to emulate Dravid's feats from 2002 tour and eradicate the tag of 'subcontinent specialist'. This tour will present him the opportunity to take his game to another level.
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