As soon as Parthiv Patel nudged the ball down to third man, Cheteshwar Pujara, standing at the non-striker's end, sprinted. He ran as hard as his dodgy knees would take him. When Patel called for a triple, he barely glanced at the fielder with the ball — AB de Villiers — and responded promptly to the call, the words of his skipper echoing in his ears.
“You can't be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs. You need to find the perfect balance to do well in South Africa especially where there is more bounce”, Kohli had said after the Cape Town Test. "You can't just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not have intent at all. You might get out, but it's important to keep coming at the bowler and making them feel, 'If you make an error I am going to score.' So I think that message needs to go pretty strongly and you need to do that as a batting unit, collectively," Kohli had said.
Pujara scampered across hurriedly, diving in as wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock gathered a pin-point perfect throw from AB de Villiers and took down the stumps. It was utter chaos. South Africa celebrated as if they had seen the replay on TV already. Pujara stood dazed as Ravi Shastri grimaced in the dressing room. Kohli looked ‘intent’ly at the replays, hoping against hope that his defensive wall, the No 3 batsman, had made his ground. He hadn't.
Run-outs across both innings. The first Indian batsman to be run-out in both innings of a Test match. The first batsman since Stephen Fleming in 2000 to be run-out in both innings of a Test match. Stats poured in thick and there was the inevitable outcry. The two run-outs were attributed to the unwanted push Kohli gave to his colleagues ahead of the crucial Centurion Test. But was Pujara's failure really down to a comment — made to spur his teammates on — from the skipper?
Yes, he had appeared every bit unlike Pujara the sub-continent knows — calm subtly confident. But this wasn't the sub-continent. This was South Africa where the cream of India's best-ever batsmen have struggled historically. This was always going to be uncomfortable.
Pujara is supposedly the ‘Wall’ of this Indian Test line-up; the rock solid piece of brick that would arrest the momentum of bowling sides looking to penetrate the Indian middle-order. But in these conditions, is the new-age 'Wall’ a tad permeable?
There was the spectacular 2013-14 series in South Africa, of course, where Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara excelled. But, keep aside his 153 at Johannesburg in 2013, and Pujara's overseas numbers are ridiculously poor for a No 3 batsman. A glance at the list of his scores on pitches starkly different from the sub-continent, and you get a better hang of things.
SA - 19, 10, 2, 25, 153, 70, 32, 26, 4, 0
NZ - 1, 23, 19, 17
ENG - 55, 28, 43, 24, 2, 0, 17, 4, 11
AUS - 73, 21, 18, 43, 25, 21
Aside from the 153, there have been no hundreds, just three half-centuries. Even Bhuvneshwar Kumar has three half-centuries outside the sub-continent. Also, Pujara's average-saving 153 came on a flat wicket where South Africa nearly chased down 459 in the final innings.
13 of his 14 Test hundreds have come within the sub-continent (10 in India and three in Sri Lanka) where he averages a whopping 65.55. On the contrary, his average in other continents read thus:
Africa - 32.72
Europe - 22.20
Oceania - 26.10
Americas - 31.00
Separate the numbers as home and away (ignoring that Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi wickets are similar to Indian) and you still see a wide disparity. In fact, for Indian batsmen with more than 1000 Test runs, the difference in home and away averages is second highest for Pujara.
The focus has almost always been on Rohit Sharma's selection, his disastrous performances outside the sub-continent and how he is technically incapable of filling the role of a No 5 batsman that Pujara's equally disastrous performances have gone rather unnoticed.
That said, Pujara, according to CricViz, does not play a huge amount of false shots outside Asia as opposed to within Asia.
So why does Pujara continue to fail outside Asia? Is it really down to luck? Or perhaps, it is his bizarre running.
The last time (before this Test) Pujara was run-out outside the sub-continent — against West Indies at Kingston in 2016 — he lost his place in the side to Rohit Sharma. In fact, Pujara has been involved in six of the last eight times Indian batsmen have been run-out in Tests.
Agree, he isn't the quickest between the wickets. But is he a poor judge of a run? Definitely not. But why then does he give in to his partner's call a lot of times when he knows his weakness as a runner? Perhaps, for the very same reason why he ran like a maniac to satisfy his skipper's call for 'intent’. Whatever the reason for his poor running and run of form in these conditions, Pujara needs to stand up and be the 'Wall’ India need him to be at No 3.