Before the start of the series against New Zealand in 2016, a debate was raging on in Indian cricket circles regarding Cheteshwar Pujara. The main concern for Virat Kohli, the Indian cricket team, was that Pujara’s strike-rate was poor in Tests. Pujara was the old-school batsman in an era of Twenty20 style slam, bang action. The old adage in Test cricket of wearing your opposition down, consuming enough balls and scoring at a decent rate was looked at as a product of a bygone-era. Patience, application and solid defence in this era all came with a disclaimer: Scoring runs in a format where discipline in run-scoring was the basis of success.
Yet, on the opening day of India’s Test against Australia in Adelaide, Pujara showed the virtues of patience, application and solid defence. On a pitch which had a bit of extra bounce in the right areas, India’s top order was once again found wanting. Barring Virat Kohli, the likes of KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant were all undone by poor shot selection and misjudgment of line and length. All these factors had hurt the Indian cricket team in tours of South Africa and England. In Adelaide, the stage was set for a repeat but Pujara changed all that.
With India reeling at 41/4, Pujara decided that it was time to buckle down and wear the opposition bowlers down. For 29 deliveries, the Saurashtra right-hander weathered the discipline shown by Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood as he focused solely on defence and survival. With Rohit also throwing his wicket and Pant also playing recklessly, Pujara was an island of tranquility as his determination grew with every passing hour.
After getting to his fifty, Pujara continued to bat according to the situation. Batting with the lower middle order required a solid presence of mind and ensuring India’s progress was not stalled. For close to 31 overs, Pujara did not hit a single boundary and focused only on taking singles and twos. The right-hander ensured that Australia had to work hard for their wickets and at the same time, he helped India get to a total which would give the bowlers some assurance.
When Ishant was cleaned up by Mitchell Starc, Pujara cut loose. He top-edged Hazlewood for a six and went past 5000 runs. A boundary and a couple later, Pujara had reached his 16th ton and his first in Australia. In many ways, this knock was a throwback to Rahul Dravid’s knock in 2003, although not for the number’s bit. Dravid’s first ton in Australia was also his 16th, similar to Pujara. Dravid notched up his milestone with a six. Pujara also reached his milestone, although a different one, with a six. At the end of the day, his 123 was made at a strike-rate of 50, making up for his slow start and giving India something to smile
Slow way, the right way in Tests
If one has to look at Pujara’s contribution in the series against South Africa and England, his ‘slow’ batting has been the only cause for celebration in India’s disasters. His 50 on a dangerous Johannesburg track consumed 179 balls. It took him 53 deliveries to get off the mark. However, it also wore down the South African pacers and ensured the rest of the batting did not have to tackle the tough conditions.
In England, his second-innings knock of 72 in Trent Bridge took 208 balls but his partnership with Kohli, despite a strike-rate of 34, ensured India had ample time to win the match. In Southampton, his 132* came at a strike-rate of 51.36 and had it not been for a lower-order collapse, India might have held the upper hand in that match as well.
Pujara’s knock in Adelaide has reinforced the belief that in Test cricket, there is no substitute to patience, application and solid defence to achieve success. The Saurashtra lad has proven former India coach Anil Kumble’s comment on strike-rates which was, “From my point of view, strike rates are only relevant to bowlers in Test cricket, not batsmen.” Old school Test specialists will agree.