Pujara, the pitch-whisperer with a better strike rate than Compton 

December 06, 2023 06:08 pm | Updated 06:12 pm IST

When India won a series for the first time in England in 1971, local restaurants celebrated by putting on their menu such culinary delights as the Wadekar cutlet, the Gavaskar curry and the Bedi pulao. When they beat Australia for the first time, in 2018-19, it was the Pujara Dance that was the feature of the celebration.

Skipper Virat Kohli credited Rishabh Pant with choreographing it after the final Test in Sydney where Cheteshwar Pujara made 193, his third century of the series of which Greg Baum wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Pujara set in, like winter. He was struck 11 times, in head, ribs and hands, and they all hurt, but he was also the fulcrum…”

A visibly embarrassed Pujara struggled with his footwork as teammates did the Pujara Dance, unable to get his timing right or wait for the moment.

He had no such problems while making 521 runs in the series and playing over 200 deliveries in an innings four times. Among those with 100-plus Tests Pujara has a better strike rate than Boycott, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, Allan Border, Des Haynes, David Boon. Overall, he scored at a faster rate than Denis Compton and Walter Hammond.

Pujara remained a bugbear to bowlers everywhere, as the game changed before his eyes. Space for the defensive batter in the age of ‘maximums’ and 90-metre sixes, had shrunk, perhaps disappeared. Among the moderns, Pujara was the least troubled by a maiden over. It allowed him to study the bowler and the conditions without risk.

In a little over a month, Pujara turns 36. Not in the team for the tour of South Africa, his future will depend on how well India do there. The Saurashtra batter is used to being criticized, dropped, brought back and then praised to the skies. Maybe the wheel will turn again, even if it looks unlikely. Like Mohinder Amarnath, Pujara is ready, willing and able whenever India need spine in the middle.

He has vacated one of the most crucial slots, the No. 3 occupied by Rahul Dravid. When Pujara made his debut against Australia with a cultured 72 in Bengaluru, he was 22. Dravid said the youngster was a better batter than Dravid himself had been at that age.

To become Pujara requires special skills. He might be called the pitch-whisperer for his ability to understand what the 22-yard strip is telling the players. If he fell short of true greatness, it was because he seldom rose above the limitations of the pitch. He read it well, but could not dictate to it.

This made Pujara an easy scapegoat whenever the Indian batting failed. He was the target when India lost the World Test Championship final to Australia earlier this year, and was dropped for the West Indies tour. Shubman Gill, a more attacking No.3 and already tasked with the job of carrying the batting post the Kohli-Pujara period, filled the slot.

Cricket boards tend to allow some players the luxury of choosing when and where they will retire. India’s board organized a series against the West Indies so Sachin Tendulkar could play his 200th Test and retire at his home ground. Even Australia, who see cricket as a team game, allowed Steve Waugh a series of farewells while currently David Warner is being given a hero’s send-off.

It is unlikely that Pujara will ask for or be given such a farewell even if his contribution to Indian cricket is as valuable if less flashy. He belongs to the line stretching back from Dravid and Gavaskar to Vijay Merchant, with a technique built on sound defence calculated to frustrate bowlers over long periods. If Dravid was the wall, Pujara is the barrier, seeing out the fast men before wading into the spinners and unfurling his array of strokes.

With Pujara, you saw the evolution of batting as a craft, defence giving way to attack with the inevitability coaches tell youngsters about. There was too his unspoken and unrecorded manner of protecting his partner, especially the youngsters.

Pujara may be the last of his kind, a cricketing exemplar of Keats’s ‘negative capability’, accepting uncertainties without reaching for trendiness and false respect. He deserves more than a fun dance in his name.

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