The Return of Che

It can’t be easy being Cheteshwar Pujara. The Saurashtra batsman was India’s permanent no. 3 in Tests for more than a year. He was to be Rahul Dravid’s worthy successor. He averaged more than 60 for his entire initial stint. And then, in December 2013, his scoring dropped. This was no coincidence – India spent most of 2014 playing away from Asia, where he had scored almost all his runs. Despite a promising century in South Africa on the first of three tough overseas tours, Pujara began to fall away. 

In December 2014, he was dropped from the test side. There seemed to be no way back, especially under incoming captain Virat Kohli. For any other modern Indian batsman, this wouldn’t have been such a big setback – they had ODIsT20s and various other avenues or skills to showcase their talent. But Cheteshwar Pujara isn’t your modern batsman; that’s what is so quaint about him. He excels in one and only one thing: top-order test batting. He is a classical test batsman; he doesn’t bowl, keep wickets or bat anywhere else but the top 3. He is a close-in catcher. He looks odd as a fielder on the boundary. That’s all Pujara has. And he must, at all times, hang onto it for dear life. Just like VVS Laxman had to, for majority of his career. He wasn’t needed in the limited overs team, and he had to continue to play for a spot in the test side for years. And he did, with great success, carving out a place of his own in the history books. 

Pujara’s game isn’t suited to T20 or ODI cricket either, and he doesn’t even bowl part-time spin to make a case for a spot. So if that’s all he is – a solid test batsman – he has to be the best at it in his country. But for the whole of 2014, Pujara wasn’t. He wasn’t even close to being his own best version. He kept playing onto his stumps, and his ability against the short ball, swinging ball and even spin was questioned. Here was a man, who not too long ago, remained the only shining beacon in a team that had lost to England at home 1-2. His double century was a lesson in test-match batting. Here was a man who batted time, more than runs – perhaps the only young test batsman today (apart from Alastair Cook) who did so, and definitely the only batsman in the Indian time capable of gritting it out. But then, Murali Vijay became that player. And Pujara’s responsibility – his place in the whole scheme of team balance – began to be questioned. And rightly so.

He wasn’t the same batsman abroad as he was in Asia, and a solid no. 3 couldn’t afford to not be prolific for long periods of time. Test cricket was all he had, and it was taken away. Rohit Sharma was seen as a better prospect, albeit briefly, at the no. 3 position. Better sense prevailed, but not sense that saw Pujara make a comeback. Kohli seemed adamant about his ill-conceived plan of ‘aggressive, fluid’ players who could force the pace of the match. But there were already too many of those; and only Vijay, who could play for time.

To be fair, Pujara’s technique had begun to look suspect in New Zealand. His bat moved more than his feet, and he looked unsure against a ball that pitched just short of good length. 

Then, at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, with both the regular openers injured, Pujara was brought back into the test side for the first time in 2015. Along with another makeshift opener in KL Rahul, he opened the innings. This was a stopgap arrangement. The only way he would even be considered for another match was if he outscored everyone else and saved the team from collapsing. And that’s exactly what he did. In the way Pujarabattled it out, all alone, as 10 other batsmen fell around him (he became only the 4th Indian batsman to carry his bat), it was clear that the brief influence of Rahul Dravid as the India A coach a month ago was beginning to take shape. Pujara showed the kind of fight and grit that was missing from all of his teammates’ games, and he held up one end, stubbornly, unattractively and without compromise. He took 60 balls to score his first 12 runs, but he played with a plan. If it didn’t come off, players like him often look like they’re in poor form. But when the plan – that of seeing through tough times and preying on bowlers’ fitness – works, it looks like an articulate, well-planned and utterly hard-working test innings. That’s how it should be. 

He fought through his own period of doubt and iffy technique. He fought with ambition, knowing that if he scored a big one, the selectors would have no choice. And he had to do it by playing to his strengths, by playing for time, by showing India that test cricket wasn’t only about runs, but about staying at the wicket in tough conditions. 

Cheteshwar Pujara ended unbeaten at 145. It was his seventh test century, and arguably his most important. It was a century that could change the near future of Indian cricket, in the best way possible. His average is now back above 50 in his 28th test match.

The number 3 is back, and he opened the innings. He could open the innings again, or he could even bat at 4, but Pujara will always remain India’sone-down batsman. The restraint and determination he shows is typical of the toughest spot in the batting order.

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