He has a triple-century to his name in U-14 cricket, a double-century against England in U-19, and one more triple-century in the Ranji Trophy. Long innings, Daddy hundreds, painful patience: Cheteshwar Pujarahas all the ingredients a Test batsman should be armed with. To add to the fire, he became the joint-fastest Indian to reach 1,000 runs in the longest format. In fact, he was always thick on numbers, eventually compelling the cricketing fraternity to take him seriously. However, more than topsy-turvy, for a player of his standard and vigour, Pujara’s journey has been in a downward spiral. He did manage to translate talent into performance but not performance into consistency. Full Cricket Scorecard: India vs West Indies, 3rd Test matchIn his Test debut, Pujara replaced the injured VVS Laxman. The contest was against Australia, an opposition VVS tormented time and again. Pujara had a big task ahead of him, not that he was expected to fill VVS’ shoes. He simply had to emulate what he did in domestic cricket.
He played a lovely cover-drive off Mitchell Johnson, his first runs at international level. But soon, he was trapped in front the very next ball, a mode of dismissal that has been his weakness ever since.
The opposition, now, know the very chink in his armour. They exploited the gap between his bat and pads, making Pujara take a long walk to the pavilion. Every such dismissal seemed to be an encore of the previous one. And, gradually, he found himself in a spot of bother.
Pujara was the most highly rated batsman in a group of current Indian batsmen (even ahead ofMurali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane). But, from scoring double hundreds with ease and grace, he is now struggling to even score a half-century with comfort.
The last time he scored a century was against Sri Lanka at Colombo, nine innings ago. This unbeaten 145-run knock, if truth be told, holds more value than his triple-hundreds. And there’s fairish reason to it.
With openers Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan ruled out due to injury, the onus of laying the foundation was on him. He lived up to Virat Kohli’s expectations and took India to 312 all-out, becoming only the fourth Indian to carry his bat.
The dynamics have changed altogether, nonetheless. From being the most vital cog in India’s famed batting line-up, he is on the verge of warming the bench, which would, eventually, be fair and square to other consistent performers.
Vijay needs no introduction. He has scored 95 at Lord’s, 97 at Durban, 99 at Adelaide, and many other such innings of substance, taking India to where it is now. Dhawan, on the other hand, seems fickle but still manages to pull off a vital knock once in a while (though a less technically-solid than Pujara). And then, there’s KL Rahul, who has been in an ominous touch, challenging the Indian openers for the coveted spot.
Rahul has been playing the role of a backup batsman for the last two years. Already three hundreds in Tests, he merits a place in the playing XI, no second thought there. He is fit as a fiddle, and is in the form of his life.
Pujara, however, looks more confused. In modern-day commentator’s words, he has found himself in the middle of nowhere.
Whether to block the deliveries or use his feet, his purpose of batting is blurred. Not that he isn’t timing the ball to perfection, he is often found caught in two minds. He still uses his bottom-handed shots to perfection.
Be that as it may, there’s no self-belief. The prodigious hunger to play big innings is nowhere to be seen. More than his career, it’s affecting Team India.
With already two matches done, India is scheduled to play 15 more Tests until summer. The schedule may seem exhausting and gruelling, but it is a perfect opportunity for India to be at the No. 1 spot in cricket’s most respected format. Thus, India has to make harsh yet sensible decisions.
To be fair to other Indian batsmen, dropping Pujara might remove the fork in the road and letting the consistent performers take the centre stage would be the ideal way.
All the same, if he Kohli’s trust in him doesn’t fade away, Pujara will have to fight his demons and get back to winnings ways. He has to reboot his batsmanship to scoring Daddy hundreds, building long innings and doing what he does the best, for he, once, was India’s most dependable batsman in Test cricket.