“In Test cricket, strike-rate only matters for bowlers, not for a batsman.”
Anil Kumble, during his stint as the head coach of the Indian team had famously said this to rally behind Cheteshwar Pujara, who was criticised for his ‘lack of intent’ (read that as poor strike-rate) by the rest of the team’s think-tank, including the skipper Virat Kohli during the 2016 tour of West Indies. Even in the 2017 Ranchi Test against Australia, despite scoring a match-saving double century, the critics were after the Rajkot lad for playing out 525 deliveries on that slow pitch and allegedly not allowing his bowlers enough time to bowl the opponent out twice.
This whole perception of Pujara being an old-fashioned “Test specialist” has been a double-edged sword for India’s No 3 throughout his career. Overseas, when he grinds it out on challenging conditions like Johannesburg, Southampton or Adelaide; the fans and media run out of adjectives to praise his “proper” Test batsmanship but at home when he adapts the same approach, the fraternity is quick to make a villain out of him.
Well, yes, in this era of power-hitters and dominating approach at the crease, Pujara, with his old-school upright technique, straight bat and the tendency of playing out a high percentage of dot balls, comes from a conservative society of batsmanship. But those who have followed his career closely should know that he is no stranger to quick scoring. As we have seen on the fourth day of this ongoing Visakhapatnam Test, if pushed Pujara can get runs with a healthy strike-rate, that too by taking the minimum amount of risk and through authentic cricket shots.
And, oh boy, Saturday's action was just an exhibition of it!
In the context of this ongoing Test match, it was completely India’s prerogative to set the pace on the fourth day after the South African batsmen scored 431 in their first innings, conceding only a 71-run lead to the hosts. To force a result in their favour, the Indian think-tank knew that they first need to bat the Proteas out of this Test and then give at least 100 overs to their bowlers to bowl the visitors out in the second innings.
But the early wicket of in-form Mayank Agarwal pegged India back slightly.
In came Pujara. Having missed out in the first innings, he started with a cautious mindset and tottered to just 8 off 61 by the first drinks break post Lunch. This ultra-defensive approach of his, was contrasting to India’s gameplan and the desperation was creeping in. When the camera panned towards the Indian dressing room, the anxiousness on faces of coach Ravi Shastri, batting coach Vikram Rathour and skipper Kohli were clearly visible.
It was time for a message to be sent out. And Kuldeep Yadav was given the job during the drinks break.
And the timely communication from the dressing room and a friendly yelling from Rohit did manage to warm him up to the task.
After the break, Pujara's approach changed drastically, as he hit 73 runs off his next 89 balls. He used his feet to great effect and drove spinners for elegant boundaries around the park and even hit a couple of sixes against them.
“I think it was a tough pitch. I was finding it difficult to rotate the strike early. Once I was in, I knew I could accelerate,” Pujara said following the end of day’s play. “We wanted to put up a decent total by tea. Things worked out in my favour and Rohit batted really well so that helped me. I think it was the intent that changed after the drinks break. I knew early on I have to get used to the pace and bounce and once I knew that I knew what kind of shots to play on the pitch. It was slower and it wasn't easy to play my shots but I knew my impact point had to change in my shots.”
During this mood of an aggressor, Pujara’s timing and placement were impeccable. Apart from surviving a lucky stumping opportunity just after changing gears, he hardly mistimed anything for the rest of his innings and even at one point, he outscored Rohit. The 169-run stand between Pujara and Rohit eventually served India’s purpose.
On a scratchy pitch, it was just sheer class and domination by India’s No 3, much like the phase in the 2012 Hyderabad Test against New Zealand, when Pujara went from 60 to 100 in 34 balls or the 2017 Bangladesh Test on the same venue when India were pushing for a declaration, he went after the bowling from ball one and ended up with an unbeaten 54 off 58 with a hooked six of Taskin Ahmed.
So, there are templates of Pujara upping the ante and adapting to match situations. Perhaps, at times what he requires is a bit of intent, which Kohli talks about.
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