As India surged ahead of England in the first innings of the third test at Southampton, there was a big reason for Indian supporters to feel happy, other than the statistical detail of overtaking the total put up by the hosts in their initial outing. This was on account of Cheteshwar Pujara finally playing an innings that did justice to his phenomenal talent and capacity. The century that he scored has helped him to redeem himself as a batsman who is a deserving successor to the legendary Rahul Dravid at the crucial no: 3 spot in the present Indian batting line-up.
Ever since he made his debut in test cricket in 2010 against Australia, Pujara had to suffer comparisons with his illustrious predecessor. For one, there was a lot in common with the way they approached the game. Both believed in the traditional values associated with the science of batting such as playing the ball along the ground, grinding the bowlers down with their monumental patience and concentration and letting their bats do the talking through the sheer volume of runs scored. There was nothing flashy about their batting; it was workman like, built on solid foundation, with the focus being on staying at the wicket without any attempt to pummel the bowlers into submission. Their strengths were concentration, caution and circumspection, attributes that did not make crowds flock to the venue to watch them in action, but nevertheless made them a darling of the captains who saw them as beacons of hope in times of crisis.
Both were judged as being inadequate for the rough and tumble of limited-overs cricket. After being dropped from the national side in this format of the game, Dravid reinvented his career by donning the big gloves, which helped him to retain his place in the side till the arrival of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. By the time T20 cricket made its advent, Dravid had evolved into the role of a senior statesman, who could act as a mentor as well. Pujara did not have any such good fortune as he has languished outside the realms of limited-overs cricket and is one of the few test players not to have a contract with an Indian Premier League (IPL) franchisee.
After a sterling debut in test cricket in 1996, Dravid went through a period of batting horrors in 1999-2000 and could finally find his feet after his century against Australia at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, where he and V V S Laxman scripted a magnificent turnaround. He was the mainstay of Indian batting in test matches since then, through the entire first decade of the 21st century and till his retirement from the game in 2012.
Similarly, Pujara had started out well in test cricket scoring centuries at will in matches at home. However, after the initial smooth take-off his career appeared to have hit an air pocket as runs proved difficult to come in pitches outside the Indian subcontinent. This was compounded by a tendency to stay long hours at the wicket without contributing much to the team’s total, which was seen by the team management as allowing the bowlers to gain upper hand over the batsmen. His inability to convert the long stay into substantial contributions in terms of runs also cast a shadow over his success at the highest level.
The change of guard at the top with Virat Kohli taking over from Dhoni also did not help Pujara. Kohli was very clear in his approach that batsmen should not only score runs but also look to dominate the bowling at every opportunity. For a batsman who was used to grinding the bowlers down, this was not an easy proposition and Pujara found himself on the firing line too often for his liking. It was clear that Pujara would be required to make substantive changes in his batting style to retain his place in the playing eleven.
It would have shocked Pujara to find himself in the list of reserves when the Indian side took field against England in the first test on the ongoing series, just as it surprised the followers of the game in the country. The failure of the entire Indian batting line-up in the first test, with the notable exception of skipper Kohli, led to his recall for the second outing. However, Pujara had a poor match and could not yet again convert his long tenure at the crease into runs on board. Critics were out again, baying for his blood, with some former players attributing the failure of Indian batting to his inability to force the pace despite staying long at the wicket. Pujara could redeem himself to some extent with a half century in the second innings of the third test. But it was in the first innings of the fourth test that he finally conquered all the batting demons and played an innings that should alter the course of his career and place it firmly in the track bound northwards.
During his unbeaten knock of 132 at Southampton, Pujara demonstrated a welcome change in his approach by not hesitating to punish the loose deliveries that came his way. He also showed a propensity to look for creating scoring opportunities rather than wait for them to be offered on a platter. He paced his innings well after the usual sedate start and did not lose his nerve when the side tumbled and lost six quick wickets. He opened out in the company of Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, adding 78 runs for the last two wickets, which helped India to gain the first-innings lead that had looked impossible at one juncture. He would have heaved a sigh of relief on reaching the coveted three-figure mark as this was the first occasion that he was hitting a century outside the subcontinent since his knock of 153 against South Africa in Johannesburg in 2013. The release of pressure was evident in his batting as he stroked the ball comfortably to all parts of the ground till Bumrah was dismissed, to signal the close of Indian innings.
What does this knock signify for the Indian squad? In the first place, one can say with confidence that we have a batsman worthy of holding the no:3 position in the batting order. The paucity of runs in pitches outside Indian conditions coupled with his inability to force the pace while allowing the bowlers to dictate terms had raised question marks about Pujara’s ability to handle this crucial position. Along with the runs scored, the positive attitude displayed by Pujara while playing this innings showed that he has matured into a batsman who can fill the spot vacated by Dravid six years ago.
The next aspect is that this would lift some amount of pressure off Kohli’s shoulders every time he walks in to bat. The knowledge that there is one more batsman capable of sharing the burden of expectations of one-billion-plus followers of the game in India would certainly make the Indian skipper a more relaxed person. In this regard, one should recollect the scenario in the early 2000s when Dravid, Laxman, Saurav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag grew into top quality batsmen and took the burden off SachinTendulkar, leaving the Great Master that extra flexibility to alter his batting style and chart out the last phase of his career. Kohli also requires this support to extend his years in international cricket and serve the cause of his country.
The last facet is that any side that has aspirations to be the top team in test match cricket requires a quality batsman at the no: 3 slot. It was Don Bradman who sold the theory that the best batsman in the eleven should bat at this position. This was based on the premise that he would be required to pace the innings of his side as well as to hold the batting together in difficult situations. Aussies still follow this rule as can be seen from the fact that in their side, the best batsman always comes in after the fall of first wicket. Thus Bradman himself, Neil Harvey, Ian Chappell and Greg Chappell, batted in this position, as have Ricky Ponting and Steve Smith.
However, in India one has seen the best middle-order batsman occupying the no:4 slot in the order; the examples being Gundappa Viswanath, Tendulkar and Kohli. But a look at the history of Indian cricket would reveal that the side has won matches in wickets outside the subcontinent on a consistent basis only when it had a world-class batsman at one-drop position. India won three away series when Ajit Wadekar batted in this position against New Zealand in 1968 and West Indies and England, both in 1971. During the 1970s and 80s India was not able to win too many test matches abroad as neither Dilip Vengsarkar nor Mohinder Amarnath, who used to occupy this position could score runs consistently. India started winning test matches abroad from 2001 onwards once Dravid established himself at this position. And one can see that after his departure, the side has won very few matches on foreign soil.
Thus Pujara’s century and the manner in which he batted at Southampton augurs well for Indian cricket. It is up to Pujara to utilise the positive momentum gained from this innings and score mountains of runs while batting at the no: 3 position. This would not only help India to retain the no: 1 ranking in test cricket but also take the side towards winning more matches abroad, which is the ultimate hallmark of a great cricketing side.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)