BETWEEN WICKETS Cricket

Finding form away from the limelight, and looking for it within

There’s a line in Wrist Assured, Gundappa Vishwanath’s recent autobiography, that says it well: “A good defensive shot holds the same value as a crunching cut or a cracking drive…” This is clearly a team man speaking, a team man aware that no Test side can afford to focus exclusively on aggressive, flashy batting alone.

Batting is also about defending, tiring out the bowlers and striking when the time is right. No one does this better than Cheteshwar Pujara, India’s most under-rated batsman of the past decade. Despite his record (95 Tests, 18 centuries, an average of nearly 44), and his value to the team as a player around whom the flashier batsmen can strut their stuff, Pujara seems destined to wait for posterity to give him his due. Sometimes value is recognised only in retrospect.

Prolific

Pujara, who plays only one format of the game now, and therefore has fewer chances in the domestic season to rediscover his form, has been batting dramatically in the English county season. With four centuries, two of them double, he has made over 700 runs in just six innings for Sussex.

The team is in the second division, but Pujara’s form is good news for India who play the final Test of the abandoned 2021 series in July. When you have played 95 Tests, your class is never in doubt, only current form is, and Pujara has answered that lingering question.

It had been rough for the batsman who is still only 34. He went 52 innings without a century and had a nightmare tour of South Africa (124 in three Tests) before being dropped.

Virat Kohli and Pujara have been the bulwarks of Indian batting in the past decade, and till recently both were struggling for runs. Each has handled the issue in typically individual manner. Pujara found his way back into form away from the public eye, quietly, but authoritatively. It helped that he didn’t have an IPL team to play for, and as he told an interviewer ahead of his first game for Sussex, he had plenty of time to get back to the basics.

The basics, surprisingly, included that post-modern stroke, the upper cut six which he played against Middlesex’s Pakistani fast bowler Shaheen Afridi. Away from the Indian cameras and repeated questions of retirement and future plans, he did what he loves and does best, batting on and on, unhurriedly, now stepping out to the spinner to drive him, now swaying back to cut the fast bowler with the angle.

It has fetched him 15 first class double centuries, the most by an Indian, and more than any other contemporary batsman.

Extremes of public reaction

Kohli, on the other hand, continues to struggle, and is still searching for that magical innings that will erase all memories of his recent poor form. As a top performer in all three formats, he does not have Pujara’s luxury of getting away from it all to rediscover his form almost anonymously. The lights of the IPL shine brightly on him, the speculations are that much louder and that much more extreme, and not yet 34, he has to deal with extremes of public reaction.

Top batsmen work out pretty quickly what works for them, and more importantly what doesn’t — Sachin Tendulkar once made a double century in a Test without once playing the cover drive which had been getting him into trouble in an Australia series — and Kohli will value the runs he makes from here on much more. He has struggled in the past, as all players have, and come out a better player.

A measure of self-denial is often recommended in Test cricket, although I suspect in the IPL the answer might lie in self indulgence, even a degree of recklessness for Kohli to reconnect with his past self.

Batsmen tend to fail the same way they succeed — getting out to favourite shots that once fetched them runs but now find the hands of fielders. Old-time coaches always suggested a back-to-the-drawing board approach, hitting the practice sessions at the nets. But the sheer volume of matches modern cricketers play means that it will have to be a combination of nets and live matches.

Unclogging

Sportsmen, like artists and novelists and poets sometimes lose their touch, the abracadabra suddenly deserting them. Occasionally the problem is technical, and that’s easily mended; but usually the problem is in the mind which needs unclogging. Pujara seems to have unclogged his, putting behind him the traumas in South Africa when he was prey to the fast bowler’s short-pitched delivery as well as the ones that seamed. The range of Kohli’s recent dismissals suggests the problem is less technical than mental.

Perhaps all he needs is the license to be irresponsible for a couple of innings.


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Printable version | Jun 22, 2022 10:52:36 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/finding-form-away-from-the-limelight-and-looking-for-it-within/article65401259.ece