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Pujara must adapt to all scenarios as Kohli’s India ramp up game

He has struck just four boundaries in two innings, three less than Amit Mishra and one more than Rohit Sharma even though Sharma has faced just 82 balls on this tour so far.

cricket Updated: Aug 16, 2016 17:57 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Pujara’s last century came in the form of an unbeaten 145 when he opened against Sri Lanka almost a year back.
Pujara’s last century came in the form of an unbeaten 145 when he opened against Sri Lanka almost a year back.(AFP)

Among all the batsmen to have faced 50 balls or more in the ongoing India-West Indies Test series, Cheteshwar Pujara has the lowest strike rate --- 27.43.

He has struck just four boundaries in two innings, three less than Amit Mishra and one more than Rohit Sharma even though Sharma has faced just 82 balls on this tour so far. Pujara’s last century came in the form of an unbeaten 145 when he opened against Sri Lanka almost a year back. Since then he has scored just one fifty --- 77 against South Africa --- in November last year.

He isn’t picked for ODIs and has gone unsold at the IPL, leaving Pujara barely 10 or 12 Tests per year to show he matters. By preferring Sharma over him in the St Lucia Test and achieving the desired win, Virat Kohli might have just showed India could do without Pujara. It’s a tricky situation.

Time and again Kohli and other teammates have emphasised on the need to play Tests with patience. Pujara does that by staying in a zone of his own where sometimes he isn’t scoring too much. If there had been a game of who bats the longest without giving any chance, Pujara would have topped every time. But cricket is also about scoring runs and Pujara has hit a roadblock there.

Occupying the crease is his forte but not his only strength though. His foot movement to spinners, along with his pull, can be compared with the best. Pujara’s scoring method however is a throwback to older times when batsmen preferred to wear out the new ball and the bowlers before starting to score freely. From that perspective, Pujara has shown only half of what is he is capable of in this series. But India couldn’t have done without the other half, either.

The visitors would have started really shaky in the first Test had Pujara not buckled down at one end of the crease as Shikhar Dhawan blew away from the other to take the visitors from 14/1 to 74/1. Similarly, in the second Test, he played the anchor role as KL Rahul made hay and took India from 87/1 to 208/1. Both times, Pujara couldn’t build on his starts but there is no denying India gained from his solidity. Having done that bit at least, Pujara might feel abandoned at being dropped for the third Test.

This, however, is a team game. And for India to do well at home and overseas, they need their No 3 to perform varying roles with the bat. Despite frowning at early comparisons with Rahul Dravid, this job was always about filling his shoes. But Pujara is now quickly becoming a No 3 who has flattered to deceive. He has played 17 Tests at home and 17 away. While his average at home is 64.39, it drops to almost half at 33.36 when he played away. Outside the subcontinent, his averages are 15 in New Zealand, 22.2 in England, 31 in West Indies, 33.5 in Australia and 44.42 in South Africa. Take away that fantastic 153 in Johannesburg in 2013 and his average in South Africa drops to 26.3.

He has seven centuries, a fairly acceptable conversion from 34 Tests. But where Pujara fails miserably is with his average scores. He has just seven career fifties and only six scores in the 40s, considered to be a qualifying mark for anyone who aspires to be a regular top-five batsman. There is nothing wrong with his defensive technique but Pujara’s scoring shots are not coming fluently.

The uniqueness of Pujara’s problem is that since he isn’t picked for one-dayers or T20s, he doesn’t get enough international matches to improve. Once this series ends, Pujara goes back to India with little scope of international level preparation for a long home season beginning September. It’s up to him how he wants to shape his way forward. If the BCCI too is keen on preserving Pujara for only the longest format, there could be some exception made and send him on India A tours overseas more often.

Till that happens, Pujara might have to struggle to regain his No 3 position, not at least when Kohli is bent on playing five frontline batsmen. Having played a crucial role in setting West Indies the target in the St Lucia Test, Sharma might just hold on to his berth for the fourth Test here. Dropping Pujara might seem a knee-jerk reaction right now. But India are eager to win, chase down large targets and set big ones without wasting precious time. Until Pujara learns to adapt to all scenarios, he might not be the No 3 India are looking for.