India vs Australia: Cheteshwar Pujara's sparkling form will give Steve Smith and Co sleepless nights
Pujara can grind an opposition into submission, sapping them of all their energy. If he plays to his potential, it would give the Australians a lot of headaches.
A tally of nearly 700 runs in just eight matches, with an average of a shade over 53. Those are figures that any batsman would accept with glee and when you know that they have come against the mighty Australians, there is every reason to feel proud. Cheteshwar Pujara can be proud of his achievements since taking over the mantle of India's No 3 from the inimitable Rahul Dravid.
It goes without saying that Pujara has had a good time against the Australians and his collection of 696 runs is his best against any opposition, barring England. Australia were the team that he debuted against in 2010, scoring a handsome half-century in his second innings itself.
A troublesome knee curtailed his participation in cricket for the next couple of years, and it was only in the home series against New Zealand in 2012 that he came into his own. In the first match of that two-match series in Hyderabad, Pujara showed his temperament and class with a superb knock of 159, batting for nearly eight hours, playing 306 balls. Interestingly enough, it was the first match that India were playing at home since Dravid's retirement and Pujara gave ample evidence that he was the rightful successor to 'The Wall'.
He was in sublime form in the home series against England, slamming a couple of centuries, including his maiden double ton, and by the time he arrived for the home series against Australia in 2013, he already had a steady wind behind his sails. Another double ton followed, this time against Michael Clarke's men, in a series in which India handed Australia a thorough hiding. A tally of 419 runs in seven innings made it a very productive series for Pujara. It was the series in which he became the second fastest Indian after Vinod Kambli to 1,000 Test runs.
He scored another 150 in the away series in South Africa later that year, but things started to get a bit wobbly from the England series in 2014. A markedly low-key series, by his own exalted standards, in which he could collect only 222 runs in 10 innings was then followed by another forgettable tour, this time of Australia. His performances in the previous series against the Australians had raised hopes that it might facilitate a turnaround in his career. It, however, turned out to be exactly the opposite.
He scored a half-century in the first innings of the first Test at Adelaide, but after a string of average scores in the next five innings, he was dumped and was replaced by the flamboyant Rohit Sharma for the fourth and final Test at Sydney. Losing his place in the side to a player of the potential and billing as Rohit would have been the last thing that Pujara would have wanted, and his Test career looked to be under serious threat. An imperious innings, which Rohit has played time and again in the limited overs, would have made a return to the side for Pujara considerably difficult. Rohit hit a fifty at Sydney, but was not able to make much of an impression in the next two matches versus Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
Pujara was, however, brought back as an opener in the third and final Test in Sri Lanka and vindicated his selection with a fine unbeaten 145. It was an important innings in Pujara's career, for a failure there would certainly have put him on the shelves for a longish duration of time. That innings gave him some breathing space, no doubt, but he was still far from safeguarding his place in the Test side.
He was back at No 3 against the touring South Africans in the latter part of 2015, but was largely unimpressive, scoring only a solitary half-century. Rohit replaced him again in the second innings of the fourth Test against the Proteas, but scored a duck, which afforded Pujara some breathing space once again. The tour of the Caribbean in 2016, however, was particularly bad for Pujara. He played just two innings on that tour, and was castigated for his painfully slow scoring rate – 16 off 67 balls in North Sound, Antigua and 46 off 159 balls in Kingston, Jamaica. As revealed by the former chairman of selectors it led to captain Virat Kohli and coach Anil Kumble having a word with Pujara, letting him know that his strike rate was a cause for concern. That, coupled with a series of ordinary scores (he had gone seven innings without a fifty) led him to be benched for the third Test of the series against West Indies in Gros Islet.
Pujara was going through a tough phase over the past two-and-a-half years and was a pale shadow of the batsman he was in 2012 and 2013. Since August 2012 to December 2013, he had scored 1,483 runs in 14 Tests at a brilliant average of 78.05 and a very acceptable strike rate of 52.25. His career graph, however, dipped sharply from January 2014 to August 2016, during which he scored just 892 runs at an average of 30.75 and a poor strike rate of 42.39.
The Duleep Trophy last year proved to be a lifeline for Pujara. With knocks of 166 and 256, he stormed back into reckoning, in the process notching up 10,000 runs in first class cricket.
The first Test against New Zealand in Kanpur brought to the fore an improved Pujara. He scored a total of 140 runs off 261 balls in that match at a reasonable rate of 53.6. He played a knock of 87 in the next Test, in Kolkata and followed it up with a century in the third and final Test in Indore. He was scoring a century in Tests after 15 innings and over a year. A total of 373 runs in six innings against the Kiwis made it a fruitful series for him.
"Pujara is someone who absorbs the pressure really well but after a certain stage in the innings there comes a time when the team needs runs," Kohli said at the end of the Kanpur Test. "That's where we felt that he has the ability to capitalise. It was just about conveying that to him. He has worked hard on his game. He scored at a good strike rate in the Duleep Trophy. Even on this wicket he was scoring at 65, almost 70 strike rate... We didn't want him to go into a shell. We want Pujara to bat to his potential," Kohli said after the Kanpur Test.
In the England series, Pujara amassed over 400 runs in eight innings, and except the second innings of the second Test at Visakhapatnam, his strike rate was generally quite reasonable. There have been times in the series when he had scored at a markedly brisk pace. Back-to-back centuries in Rajkot and Visakhapatnam set the tone for another fine series.
Pujara was in his element in the one-off Test against Bangladesh. He scored 83 off 177 balls in the first innings, in the process breaking Chandu Borde's five decades-old record of most runs by an Indian in a single season. Borde had amassed 1,604 runs in 1964-65 that included Tests and first class matches. By the time he finishes the season at the end of the Australia series, he may have nearly 2,000 runs in his bag. That's a big achievement when you consider the luminaries that have batted for India over the years. In the second innings, he hit almost a run-a-ball fifty when the Indians needed quick runs.
"There is a perception that I can't play too many shots. If you look at domestic cricket and overall that I have played, this was one of the occasions that gave me an opportunity to express myself and I did that," Pujara said after that knock, which saw him even hooking Taskin Ahmed for a six. He was no longer the batsman who would not be able to keep the scoreboard moving. He was not oblivious to the basics though. "When it comes to Test cricket, you still have to put a prize on your wicket and when you are playing in first innings, you don't want to play any rash shot, get out and put the team in trouble," he said.
By his own admission, he has learnt from the mistakes in the New Zealand and England series, and he is raring to go against the Australians. "I would look to continue the same form. Probably try and do even better than whatever I did against New Zealand and England. I have learnt from the mistakes which I did during these series and continue the good things which I have done in the previous two series," Pujara said on the sidelines of a T20 tournament in Mumbai.
"People have high expectations because I am known to score double hundreds," Saurashtra batsman said, and he could not have been more correct. He scores his runs with the minimum of fuss and would be 70-80 without you even noticing and offers the solidity that is so very necessary in the top order. But indeed it's time he starts scoring those big hundreds again. He can grind an opposition into submission, sapping them of all their energy. One imagines the Australians would already be spending sleepless nights thinking about ways to keep him at bay.
The 50-year-old Kumble, who also served as the head coach of the Indian team, also feels that as we move onto the OTT (over the top) platforms, more technology will come into the sport.
Head coach Matthew Mott said Vlaeminck, who did not bowl on Thursday, would be the lone player unavailable for next week's ODIs in Mackay and the ensuing Test in Gold Coast.
Whether Kohli took the decision to quit T20I captaincy to purely manage the workload or the criticism got to him will remain a mystery for a while, but all things considered, it appears a bold move that should only benefit Indian cricket and him.