India’s metal in the middle Cheteshwar Pujara is probably at the peak of his career. Having made his debut in 2012, the Saurashtra cricketer is now looking to conquer new territories. Centuries in England, Australia, South Africa has only brought much fanfare for the 33-year-old cricketer. However, one thing that even one of his ardent fans can’t ignore: he is a slow cricketer. Numbers clearly show how his contemporaries are acing the art of scoring runs in a manner which is a bit entertaining.
For instance David Warner has played the same number of Test matches as Pujara – 86; but, the Australian has a strike rate of 72.68 while Pujara’s strike rate stands at a lowly 44.64. Even comparison to Kane Williamson, who is a bit Pujaraesque in his approach, tells the same story. New Zealand captain has 7,230 runs in 85 Tests at a strike rate of 51.76! Pujara has often batted painstakingly slow and this has mounted some sort of pressure on the non-striker’s end, even in Test matches.
It was this feature of Pujara’s batting that did not go well in an all-important World Test Championship final. He accounted for 8 runs in 54 balls(first innings), and 15 off 80 deliveries in the second innings; India losing the game only highlighted his inefficiency.
Let’s not forget that it is the same Pujara whose occupation of the crease was spoken of in glowing terms when India created a historic 2-1 series win in Australia last season. Even captain Virat Kohli has emphasised the importance of Pujara but numbers show that the 33-year-old from Saurashtra has been playing too defensively, providing an added advantage to the bowlers who are happy resorting to same line and lengths.
Coming back to WTC Final, Pujara took 36 deliveries to get off the mark in the first innings. Later he was trapped in front by Trent Boult despite launching Neil Wagner for successive boundaries; he was over-cautious to say the least. Consuming too many deliveries creates doubts in batsman’s minds and Pujara is no different; he may get away with a slow start on dry pitches of India and Australia, but playing in English conditions with that attitude may cause problems.
“When there is moisture on the surface and there is movement through the air and off the pitch, it is going to be challenging for him,” said a former batsman of repute.
There is also a debate if Pujara needs to be moved up to open the batting in such a scenario. Though he has opened in Tests before-with a much improved strike rate of 62.03 runs every 100 balls, experts feel it’s not the batting position, but the mindset that matters.
Like Dilip Vengsarkar, who had tremendous success in England, said ability to rotate strike early is the key to building a long innings in England. Pujara is known to build long innings, but he has to rotate the strike early on and unsettle the bowlers. Consuming too many deliveries sends the message that ‘I am here to survive and not to attack.’
Pujara must convert half-chances into scoring opportunities. His mindset should be to negotiate even good deliveries and drive those that are at his legs-a feature which was clearly missing in WTC Final; this will force the bowlers to alter their line and lengths and may allow the batsman to pounce on anything ordinary.
Strike rates in Test cricket do matter a lot now a days, especially when the batsmen are spending most of the time playing T20 leagues across the world. How much of a role does that play in Pujara’s over defensive tactics as he hardly plays the shortest format of the game. Although he is part of CSK, but it’s anybody’s guess that he will be a regular feature in the squad. Meanwhile his friends say Kohli or Rohit Sharma are multi-format players and it shows in their superb strike rates in Test cricket.
Let’s not forget Pujara occupying the crease resiliently in Sydney will stay for long in our memory, but an image makeover is the need of the hour.