Not the next Dravid; the first Cheteshwar Pujara: Flip Side by Kunal Pradhan
There was a 30-minute period in the final session of the first morning of the fourth Sydney Test when Cheteshwar Pujara entered ‘the zone’, rocking backwards and skipping forward with the buoyancy of a featherweight boxer.
Nathan Lyon pitched it up; Pujara, on 72, used his feet and flicked it through short mid-wicket. A couple of deliveries later, the off-spinner went slightly shorter; Pujara danced down the track and beat the mid-on fielder. Five overs later, Mitchell Starc attacked middle-and-leg; Pujara flicked it to the on-side fence. Next ball, the left-arm seamer tried to lure him into the corridor of uncertainty; Pujara imperiously cut off the back foot. In a few minutes, he would raise the bat to celebrate his 18th Test century – the third of a historic Australian tour in which he managed to get a monkey off his back.
When you lose something important, it is natural to try and replace it with something almost identical that does the same thing, looks and feels similar, or fits the same mould. In Indian cricket, this tendency is more pronounced than usual – perhaps more than is healthy. Over the years, it has manifested in long, futile searches to replace great players who have retired with others who appear to be their replicas.
Sometime in the 1980s, Indian cricket decided that all opening batsmen should be short, technically flawless, averse to early aggression on the pitch, and excellent slip fielders to boot. In other words, carbon copies of Sunil Gavaskar, owing to his era-defining run at the top of the line-up.
Once he walked into the sunset, an array of walk-on, walk-off openers (Shiv Sunder Das, Aakash Chopra, even Parthiv Patel, are cases in point) were made to hover in and around the Indian team in the hope that they would emerge as Gavaskar 2.0.
It was left to someone as iconoclastic and singular as Virender Sehwag to first shake, and then shatter, the myth that all successful Indian opening batsmen must necessarily look and play the way
So, by the time Rahul Dravid hung up his boots in 2012, Indian cricket, not surprisingly, thought it had found the perfect template for all No.3 batsmen of the future. Like Gavaskar, Dravid occupied the same slot in the line-up for over a decade; like Gavaskar, his batting was very obviously built around the pursuit for technical perfection; like Gavaskar, the pace of his innings was easier to predict than that of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. While the other three brought a lot more of their own individual styles into the slots they occupied, Dravid emerged as the quintessential, textbook one-drop batsman.
When Dravid was replaced by Pujara, Indian cricket considered it the perfect passing of the baton. We didn’t want No. 3s to be flashy, loose-limbed batsmen who reached for the ball and caressed it through the off-side. Instead, we sought a rock-solid defence; patience to last at the crease; a strike-rate under 50; and putting a price on your wicket. Pujara ticked these boxes, leading to a perception that India had seamlessly filled the Dravid-sized hole in its batting card.
But the advantage this gave Pujara was short-lived. Impressions or associations may give you a break – as it gave the openers who were thought to be the next Gavaskar – but not the consistency, experience and constant updating of skills needed to survive in Test cricket.
Slowly, as the runs started to dry up in New Zealand, England and Australia during a barren 2014, the Dravid comparison started working against Pujara. Experts said he didn’t rotate the strike like Dravid did, he couldn’t curb his natural tendency to pull like Dravid had, he was unable to withstand pressure like Dravid could. There was now one school of thought that scoffed at Pujara for not matching up to Dravid and another that blamed him for having the gall to think he could. Neither thought of judging him in isolation.
But on this Australia tour, which will forever be linked with him after 521 runs at an average of 74.42, Pujara has shown that he’s an India No. 3 batsman in his own right. Not the next Rahul Dravid; the first Cheteshwar Pujara.