When Cheteshwar Pujara reached the landmark of 5,000 runs in Test cricket during the first Test of the ongoing series, a prominent website released a set of interesting statistics. The data published showed that both Pujara and Rahul Dravid had both reached this milestone in 108th innings. The figures also revealed that, by sheer coincidence, both players had taken the same number of innings to reach the 3,000 and 4,000-run clubs, which came off 67 and 84 innings respectively. These numbers ostensibly sought to establish that Pujara had grown in stature to match that of Dravid, whose No. 3 position in the batting line-up the former had taken, after the latter announced his retirement from Test cricket.
It can be said with conviction that Pujara has been the batting sensation of the India-Australia Test series, overshadowing even the brilliant Virat Kohli. By scoring three centuries in four Tests, he has broken the jinx of not performing well in conditions outside the Indian subcontinent. The century he struck at Southampton during the tour of England had indicated that he was in the process of conquering the demons that seemed to plague his batting whenever India played against top sides on their home turf. His consistent performances during the Australia series proves that he has evolved into a top notch performer in the difficult world of Test cricket, especially when pitted in challenging conditions that help the bowlers more than the willow-wielders.
His poor performances in pitches outside India was a cross that Pujara had to bear till the onset of the tour of England. There was never any doubt about his talent, technique or temperament. Unfortunately, he seemed to get bogged down while playing abroad, allowing bowlers to take the upper hand and dictate terms. The long hours he spent in the middle never seemed to convert into runs and a frustrated team management took the extreme step of benching him during the tour of England. He also appeared confused over the attitude of captain Kohli and head coach Ravi Shastri who insisted that batsmen should look to dominate the bowling and not merely spend time in the middle without scoring runs. This approach did not suit a batsman like Pujara who batting was built around the principles of solid defence, immense concentration and mammoth patience and not on slick stroke play and big-hitting.
It would be an understatement to say that Indian batting has revolved around Pujara during the current series. In the first Test he rallied the batting after the Aussie pacers had run through the top order to leave India reeling at 41/4 on the first morning. His 123 in the first innings and 71 in the second knock proved to be critical for the visitors who won the match by a narrow margin of 31 runs. He did not score too many (24 & 4) in the second Test which the hosts won by 146 runs. In the third Test, he ground the Aussie bowlers down with a patient 106 and helped India raise a big first innings total (443/7 declared) that proved to be vital as the pitch started disintegrating from day three onwards. In the final encounter, he lorded over the bowlers, even scoring runs at a fast clip, and was distinctly unlucky to miss the double hundred by a mere seven runs. In all likelihood, visitors would have tasted the bitter pill of defeat in the first Test and would have been hard put to score a big total in the third match but for his brilliant batting.
Another interesting statistic that was doing the rounds told that Pujara had faced more balls (1,258) than any other Indian batsman in a Test series held in Australia, overtaking the record of Dravid (1,203 balls faced during 2003-04). Other Indian batsmen who faced more than 1,000 balls in a Test series Down Under are Vijay Hazare (1,192), Kohli (1,093), and Sunil Gavaskar (1,032). Occupancy of the crease, which is accurately measured in number of balls faced, is the key to batsmanship in the longer version of the game, and Pujara’s record establishes that he is right up there with the all-time greats of Indian cricket.
However, while celebrating Pujara’s success, one should not forget the hardships that he had faced on his way to the top. He was born in a lower middle class family in Saurashtra. His father Arvind Pujara, a clerk in Indian Railways, had played first class cricket for Saurashtra. Arvind saw the talent in his son at an early age and started coaching him in conditions that can only be described as spartan. Arvind used to conduct free coaching to boys in his locality about the basics of the game and Pujara also joined the other wards who attended his father’s nets. Young Pujara withstood many a setback and tragedy in his personal life, including the demise of his mother from cancer, before achieving his ambition of playing for the country. Pujara owes his success to the work ethic and discipline instilled in him by his father while Arvind, on the other hand, deserves to be congratulated not only on helping his son convert the talent he was blessed with into performance but also for ensuring that he grew up into a young man firmly rooted to the ground.
I have given this brief family background of the mainstay of India’s batting to highlight another aspect. Pujara is the only member of the national side who went unsold in the auction for Indian Premier League (IPL) that was held last month. He was a member of Kolkata Knight Riders till 2011 and played for other franchisees till 2014. Pujara went unsold during 2015 auction following which he opted to play county cricket for Yorkshire. The reason behind the reluctance of franchisees to place money on Pujara is not hard to find - his brand of batsmanship neither brings in quick runs nor pleases the gentry who follow the IPL. Thus while players who are virtually unheard of rake in millions, the hero of Indian batting finds himself left out in the cold when it comes to the financial largesse that IPL showers on cricketers.
Even worse is the treatment meted out to him by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Pujara is classified under 'A' category, along with Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja, with an annual retainer fee of Rs 5 crore. Placed above them are those in 'A+' category who are paid Rs 7 crore and those include Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar. It merits mention all the other players forming part of 'A' and 'A+' categories fetch a huge price during the IPL auctions and the retainer fee paid by the BCCI is in reality small crumbs for them.
There are reports that the BCCI might soon place Pujara also in the 'A+' category. However, the point that is sought to be conveyed is that the BCCI should not limit itself to merely placing him in this category with a marginal increase in retainer fee. Players like Pujara, who take part only in the longer version of the game and thus miss out on the financial bounties that are available to those who specialise in shorter formats, should be suitably compensated by the BCCI. Otherwise there would be an inclination on the part of upcoming players to avoid the extra hard work that is required for being successful in Test cricket and confine themselves to playing white ball cricket alone. Such tendencies would prove to be ruinous to Indian cricket in the long run.
The joy and happiness that followers of the game in India experience when the national side wins a series in top Test playing nations is second only to the emotions unleashed during the ICC World Cup triumphs of 1983 and 2011 as well as the ICC World T20 in 2007. It would be unfair if the player who played a pivotal role in holding the Indian batting together during the Australia series is given the short shrift when it comes to financial rewards. Lovers of the game look up to the BCCI to provide special package for Pujara and other players like him who show such firm commitment to Test cricket as to ignore the other versions of the game. There cannot be a better way for the BCCI to send a message to the cricketing world that Test cricket remains its top priority.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)