While the New Zealanders went through another painful process of being gobbled up by the Indian team and were being mesmerised by Ashwin’s guile, it is time to focus on the intense pressure and scrutiny Cheteshwar Pujara has to undergo each time he comes out to bat.
In India’s frenetic scramble for some quick runs, Pujara scored a 148-ball hundred at a strike rate of 68. Not bad by any yardstick and at no stage of the innings did it appear that he was not playing in the “interest” of the team.
Yet one could sense there were some subtle hints to his past, his general inability to score fluently and a tendency of slowing down the run-rate.
Pitted against the Saurashtra man is the more flamboyant, aggressive “match-winner” Rohit Sharma. The Mumbai player, no doubt, promises the moon, with his audacious strokeplay, the reason why he replaced Pujara in the team in Sri Lanka. Even in the West Indies, he is the one who pushed Pujara out, but the team quickly realised Pujara is the more dependable batsman and Test cricket is not played at a one-day or T20 pace.
The two, somehow, have become competitors against each other in the team, especially the day India decide to reduce a batsman and play five bowlers instead.
All this is fine and even healthy for a team that now has zoomed to the number one spot in Test cricket. But what is a bit perplexing is the condescending tone in which some of the experts talk about Pujara, giving the impression his presence in the team is not too welcome. The Mumbai man, we are told, has the backing of the captain, who loves to attack and would prefer a batsman of Rohit’s class and aggressive temperament in his bid to strengthen the team.
The only problem being that Pujara keeps scoring runs, that too under pressure situations and at a slot where the bowlers are fresher and the wicket livelier. Even then, the tone of the criticism suggests the fault lies with the batsman and the runs he scores are not in the team’s interest.
Pujara’s plight reminds me of Praveen Amre and his short 11-Test career for India. One of the most prolific run-getters in the domestic circuit, Amre had to shift to Railways because the extremely talented Mumbai side of the late eighties and nineties did not have a place for him.
He scored a half century against the South Africans on his one-day debut in Kolkata and then had a baptism by fire on his Test debut in South Africa in 1992. On a fast, live Durban track, when India were reduced to 38 for 3 against the likes of Allan Donald, Amre scored a hundred while the Indian team barely managed to score 200 runs.
Even after that innings, there were murmurs of his lacking in class and not fit to play for India, that too at the expense of the “classy” Sanjay Manjrekar. Amre was always put under pressure and that probably affected his confidence, though he still managed an average of 41 in the short run he was given to play for the country.
I still remember the cold, windy March day in Hamilton in New Zealand where India were to play New Zealand in a one-off Test in 1994. Amre, we were told, was down with fever and cold and not fit for selection, while the player himself tried to convey to the reporters that he was fit to play.
Unlike Amre, Pujara is made of much sterner stuff and every time he gets entangled in a crisis created by adverse circumstances, he fights back. And after Tuesday’s century played at a tempo brisk enough not to let India “down”, Pujara should not be made to look over his shoulder all the time.