India vs Australia: Cheteshwar Pujara and the virtues of slowness
- India vs Australia: Strike rates are an integral part of cricket of course; in limited overs games, in T20s in particular, strike rate is king, but does it have a role in Test matches?
Of the several clichés to have gnawed their way into a layered sport like cricket, phrases like “playing result-oriented cricket” and “players expressing themselves” are pretty commonplace.
Add to that another one that has been cropping up with increasing frequency in India’s tour of Australia, particularly with reference to the batting of Cheteshwar Pujara - “batting strike rates”.
Now, strike rates are an integral part of cricket of course; in limited overs games, in T20s in particular, strike rate is king. It is what decides matches.
But does it really have a role to play in Test matches?
Unlike shorter formats that are limited by a quota of overs, Tests are defined by time and meant to accommodate the swinging fortunes orchestrated by the skills of 22 players, a slowly-changing pitch and varying weather elements over five days. To view it merely through the filters of wins and defeats, averages and strike rates can be misleading.
Monday’s drawn game - India’s fourth overseas draw in the last five years - at the Sydney Cricket Ground has to be one of the greatest examples in the history of the game of what Test cricket offers beyond statistical absolutes. A draw, as unbelievable it may sound at the end of what has been a defining decade for cricket, is a result too. Strike rates of 37.56 (Cheteshwar Pujara), 30.47 (Ravichandran Ashwin) and 14.29 (Hanuma Vihari) made it possible. There was no dearth of excitement. It was a necessary change of tactics once Rishabh Pant got out; Ravinder Jadeja, who had a dislocated thumb, had to be protected.
Cricket has rarely had such sightings in recent years, two gritty batsmen, each carrying their own injuries, stonewalling a fearsome and relentless bowling attack.
Still, the general idea is that a strike rate of above 50 is acceptable in Tests. Dip below 50, like Pujara (career strike rate of 45.45) and there is room for criticism.
It is though, difficult to doubt Pujara’s method. For proof, simply look at India’s overseas record in the past five years where Pujara (1620 runs in 24 Tests) is just behind leader Virat Kohli (1825 runs in 24 Tests) and ahead of Ajinkya Rahane (1572 runs in 24 Tests). Kohli has the best strike rate (53.5) but both Pujara (SR 38.21) and Rahane (SR 45.75) have played critical roles in building a score. And in Tests, scoring fast is hardly the point; scoring big is what matters.
A case in point is England opener Dom Sibley’s century (120) against West Indies in Manchester last July. Coming at the expense of 372 deliveries in 556 minutes, it was the second slowest century ever by an England batsman at home. But that says nothing about the impact it had on the match, which was this: it took England past 400 for the first time at home in three years; and England won the Test. Five days are more than enough to force a result despite “boring” strike rates and run rates.
This is similar to the effect Pujara has on the Indian team - despite the talk about his “slow” strike rate, the Indian team’s scoring rate as well as runs per wicket averages as a whole has improved over the last few years (see chart).
Pujara’s batting has been a key element in this improvement. For example, at the SCG, Pujara’s stability played a critical part in allowing Pant to go on the rampage. Pujara remains the bulwark who scored three centuries to help India become the first Asian side to win a series in Australia last tour. In fact, the team has plenty of players who have the ability to score hard and fast - Kohli, Pant, Rohit Sharma, and Jadeja - but only two who can be relied on to anchor the innings under any condition, Pujara and Rahane.
In fact, no one has faced more balls than Pujara in wins and draws in the last 10 years.
In fact, where India can improve more is an area where they are often dependent on Pujara’s long-playing abilities - posting big totals. Only 14 times out of 29 innings in 2016-21 have India crossed the 250-run mark in Australia, England and South Africa. In the preceding five years, that number was 22 (out of 38).
In that light, consider Pujara’s scores in India’s top five overseas totals in the last five years: 193, 106, 72, 0 & 77.
So why is Pujara being singled out? Former players like Ricky Ponting feel Pujara should have been proactive in the first innings at SCG for example.
“He's 16 off his first 100 balls with no boundaries. That is…and I don't care who you are…if you're at the other end and someone is batting like that, so much more pressure comes back on you,” cricket.com.au had quoted Ponting as saying.
In other words, even when there seems to be the opportunity and the motive for scoring faster, Pujara does not “shift gears”.
There is no doubt that Pujara is one of the slowest to get off the blocks in Test cricket right now. But he knows how to make it count. If his attacking percentage against pacers drops to single digits, he makes up for it by coming down the track to spinners. It’s a waiting game essential for Tests - it results in a great conversion rate for him (18 centuries, 27 fifties). Since 2006, Pujara also holds the record for most runs scored by an Indian in a Test session in Australia - 77 in Adelaide during the last tour.
Strike rates seem irrelevant when you trust the results the likes of Pujara offer, not how they get to it.