By Chetan Narula
Over the past couple of seasons or so, a new trend has emerged in the Indian dressing room. It has nothing to do with cricket; it is about facial hair instead. Most members of the squad, across formats, sported properly manicured beards until the trend changed recently during the 2017 Indian Premier League.
Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja prominently “broke this beard” tradition and shaved. Some of them – Virat Kohli, KL Rahul, Hardik Pandya, etc. – still wear theirs proudly. And there is a new addition to this “perfectly bearded” club – Cheteshwar Pujara.
Over the years, he had a rough grazing of hair on his face, like most adolescent kids who have pretentious beards. But unlike them though, Pujara was just too busy to care about his looks. For him, it is about practicing in the nets and scoring runs, doing the basics right, ticking all boxes and performing on the field. Perhaps, in his own way, he never thought that beards could be a bonding factor among his colleagues.
Today, he doesn’t stand out anymore.
A death knell in his career
Kohli defined the 2015 series win in Sri Lanka as a “landmark” win for a young Indian team. While it is easy to understand the collective significance of his words, on an individual level within the dressing room, it was the most important series for Pujara. He sat out four Tests – against Australia at Sydney, against Bangladesh at Fatullah, against Sri Lanka at Galle and P Sara (Colombo) – in the space of six months. For someone who only plays one format at the international level, it was nearly a death knell for his career.
Like any seasoned cricketer, Pujara doesn’t like to talk about it openly. Inside his head though, he probably failed to understand why he wasn’t playing at that point in time. Imagine wanting to be a Test cricketer all your life, preparing in a certain way and becoming the quintessential batsman for that format – only for your role to be assigned to someone else who is, technically and effectively, a completely different batsman.
Persist like Pujara does at the crease, and ask about his toughest phase again. He will only talk about the injuries in 2010-’11 that cost him a year of Test cricket. If you probe again about that particular 2014-’15 period, he will finally come out with a ready answer, one which has been playing on loop for quite some time now.
“There was a phase where I was getting good starts but wasn’t able to convert them into big ones. I spoke to Rahul [Dravid] bhai and worked hard. There was nothing wrong with my technique and he told me to continue playing the way I was,” Pujara said.
At some point during that period, this writer had a conversation with Pujara’s father, who has doubled up as his coach and mentor ever since he dreamt of being a Test cricketer. “It isn’t only about scoring runs, but you also have to face a certain number of deliveries when at the crease. You have to take the shine off ball. That is your job as a top-order batsman. He might not have scored enough runs overseas, but look at the number of balls he has faced,” said Arvind Pujara.
He has a point. Open up statistics from the last Australian tour, and his strike-rate was less than 50 during the three Tests he played there. Even so, the devil is in the detail. In Adelaide, Pujara scored 73 off 135 and 21 off 38. In Brisbane, he scored 18 off 64 and 43 off 93. In Melbourne, he scored 25 off 71 and 21 off 70. If Pujara said that he was getting starts but just not converting them, this is precisely where his words hold water.
Perhaps his best “consumption of deliveries” was in India’s singular-yet-stupendous win during that long overseas schedule. At Lord’s in 2014, on a green top on the first day, Pujara scored 28 runs but faced 117 balls during two sessions. It is a statistic lost in the hullabaloo over the 222 runs he scored in five Tests during that tour. Ask Ajinkya Rahane (who scored a scintillating hundred at Lord’s in that innings) though, and he will tell you the value of Pujara scrubbing the ball early on that day.
The century at SSC that changed everything
Let it be said here though that the team management wasn’t completely at fault in trying Rohit Sharma at No 3. As captain and coach, it is their prerogative to find solutions to the problem they perceive. The big fault in this approach was when Rohit was dropped down the order, and still Pujara wasn’t included, not until that third Test at the SSC. There, on a green top, he did what no other batsman could, scoring an unbeaten 145 and paving the way for an Indian series win.
“When I got that hundred in Sri Lanka in 2015, everything changed. After that, even in domestic cricket I’ve scored some runs. When you start playing domestic cricket and start scoring big runs, you gain lot of confidence. You know what are the changes required in your game and if you’ve made some changes in your game, then you can try and implement those things in domestic cricket. I think playing domestic cricket did help me,” said Pujara.
Afterwards, Pujara has been left out of the Indian XI only once, in St Lucia wherein the management was sold onto the idea of strike-rate again. To their chagrin, they realised the value of facing deliveries soon enough, reduced to 126/5 on another green top. Since then, Pujara has gone nowhere, allowed time to breathe and score his runs with Kohli proclaiming him to be a vital member of the Test squad. The Indian captain went further and publicly asked for an elevation in his contract with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which resulted in Pujara getting a Grade A retainer in March 2017.
The impressive home season
The long home season makes for an impressive reading. Against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, thanks to this newfound confidence, Pujara scored 1316 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 62.66, inclusive of four hundreds and eight half-centuries. It was a stunning display of his full range – from brilliant footwork against New Zealand’s spinners to batting long against England to stone-walling Australia (at Ranchi) for hours on end.
All of it though, seemed like a blast from the past. You compare his readings from the last time India played a long home season in 2012-’13, and there are umpteen similarities. New Zealand, England and Australia had come calling then too, and Pujara amassed 1073 runs in 10 Tests at 82.53, inclusive of four hundreds and two half-centuries. It was a breakthrough season for him, but in light of his recent form, you are left reading the same script again.
It's been an amazing journey so far & I thank each one of you for the constant support. The next one will be very special for me. #50thTest
Thus far, it has been a story of numbers. On Thursday, Pujara adds another to this long list – 50th Test. In a way, life comes full circle for he returns to the scene of arguably his greatest personal triumph yet – the SSC.
With a full overseas schedule (to South Africa, England and Australia) pending though, you wonder about the road ahead, for there are even more numbers to be achieved, records to be improved upon, and all of it, whilst maintaining a perfectly groomed beard.
This article was originally published on Scroll.in.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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