The Fluctuating Career of Cheteshwar Pujara

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Cheteshwar Pujara, India’s number three, is one of the few remaining classic Test batsmen. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Pujara is not concerned with scoring at a fast rate, but prefers to focus on occupying the crease for as long as possible. The way in which he dominates bowling attacks relies on converting starts, which he does on a regular basis. This is shown by the statistic that he has almost as many hundreds as fifties. Pujara’s career has not been a simple one though. He has had moments of sheer brilliance, and had times when he looked completely out of sorts and exposed. Without a doubt, Pujara has the potential to be one of the best batsmen in the world, all he has to do is find a level of consistency which has not done in his career so far. The career of Cheteshwar Pujara has been an entertaining one, especially considering his constant desire to improve.

Early International Career

Pujara’s international career began in 2010, when he made a fifty in the second innings in the first Test against Australia in Bangalore. However, Pujara’s next series was a huge disappointment after a brilliant start. In the three innings he played in South Africa, Pujara only managed 31 runs. Fortunately, the selectors persevered with him and they benefited from it greatly. After the South Africa series, Pujara went on to average above 65 in his next five series. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his amazing run of form, was the teams he scored runs against. Playing series against England, Australia and later South Africa is never easy, especially for a young batsman aiming to make a mark on international cricket. Yet, Pujara took on the task expertly, and scored over 1,200 runs in just 20 innings.

Pujara’s purple patch began with a phenomenal home series against New Zealand. Pujara hit a magnificent 159 in the first Test and followed it up with a determined 48 in the second Test. That was the first of his seven Test hundreds. However, Pujara was not content to rest on his laurels and then took the attack to England.

When India lost 2-1 to England at home, Pujara was the only bright point for India, scoring 438 runs at an average of over 85. This included a double hundred in the first Test, which was the first sighting of Pujara’s trait to convert starts into large scores.

He continued to excel against strong oppositions, averaging a remarkable 83 against world champions Australia. However, some labelled him as a player who could only play in Asia – making use of the flat pitches. He proved his critics wrong. When India toured South Africa, Pujara hit one hundred and one fifty in the two matches he played. In doing so, he tamed the likes of Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis and Morne Morkel. His golden run had reached its peak.

The Turning Point

After an incredible two years, Pujara’s luck ran out. It was in the series against New Zealand in 2013/14 where he began to falter. In four innings Pujara only managed to contribute 60 runs. This was the first time he had a series average of less than 65 since 2012. All of dismissals in that series came from either Trent Boult or Tim Southee, which exposed a previously hidden weakness against seam. Indeed, it appeared that Pujara struggled to play consistently against seam outside of Asia, and this was exploited by England.

Despite winning at Lords, India’s tour of England in 2014 was a disaster, and Pujara’s fate was no different. In the five Test matches played, Pujara only managed to record one fifty in tough conditions. However, it seemed that he still had the desire to score runs, as shown by his gritty innings of 28 off 117 at Lords. Yet, it was his weakness against pace that undid him. Out of the 10 innings he played, he was only out to spin twice, with James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Liam Plunkett accounting for the majority of his dismissals.

However, Pujara was determined to work on playing in foreign conditions. Therefore, he signed a County Championship contract with Derbyshire for the remainder of the 2014 season. While he made just 7 runs in his first match, he soon adapted to the tough English conditions. In his next four innings, Pujara accumulated 212 runs, including an unbeaten century against Leicestershire. This turned out to be highly beneficial for Pujara, since India had an upcoming series against Australia.

New Era

Prior to that tour, India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had announced his retirement in a shock move. The captaincy passed over to the young, aggressive and talented Virat Kohli. Many people wondered whether Kohli would favour Pujara’s defensive approach in the side, or perhaps opt for a more aggressive batsman such as Rohit Sharma.

Yet, Pujara found himself in demand for the first three Tests. His return to international cricket was not electric, but showed some improvements in his batting. Against one of the best bowling attacks in the world, Pujara scored 201 runs in the series at an average of over 30. Moreover, in the first Test, Pujara hit a key 73 which laid the foundation for the Indian innings. However, Pujara only played a supporting role in that series, as Kohli stole all the headlines. In his first Test series as captain, Kohli hit four hundreds and one fifty. Kohli amassed 692 runs in four Tests at an average of over 85. Importantly, his strike rate was well above 60, whereas Pujara’s was the second lowest of the Indian batsmen.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Pujara was left out of the team for the start of India’s tour of Sri Lanka. The series started on a bad note as India lost the first Test comprehensively. In the second innings of the Test, India folded for just 112 and they lacked any foundation. However, they decided to still leave Pujara out for the second Test. Yet this time they found a new talent in Lokesh Rahul. His century in the first innings set up a mammoth 278 run win for India, as Ravichandran Ashwin ran riot. It was only in the third Test, when Pujara got an opportunity. He made the most of it. Pujara scored a magnificent unbeaten 145, after opening for the first time. Just as the series against New Zealand was a turning point in his career, so was this innings.

Back to Form

Statistics are not always reliable in judging how well a player is playing. That is true of Pujara’s recent Test series. For instance, his average of 33 against South Africa does not tell the nature of just how well he played. In conditions which favoured the spinners heavily, Pujara scored the third most runs out of all the Indian batsman. The pitches were so heavily doctored for the spinners that Nagpur was later handed an official warning by the ICC.

One innings which highlights the return to form of Pujara was in the second innings in the first Test at Mohali. Pujara came in with the score at 9-1, and proceeded to dig in against a world class South African bowling attack. With the pitch once again turning form ball one, Pujara played a phenomenal innings under pressure. He hit a magnificent 77 off 153, which was the highest score in the match. This increased India’s lead to above 200, and allowed the spinners to skittle South Africa in the fourth innings.

The same can be said for India’s recent tour of the West Indies. In the first Test in Antigua, Pujara came in at 14-1 in just the seventh over. Everyone had been surprised by the nature of the pitch, which had a light coating of grass which aided the seamers drastically. Shannon Gabriel made the most of the extra pace and bounce and produced one a fine spell of hostile fast bowling. Pujara, however, managed to cautiously see out the spell and guide India to lunch. Yet, in the over after lunch, Pujara threw it away.

While a score of 16 off 67 does not look impressive at all, it does not tell the vital role it played. Indeed, this allowed for Kohli to come in to bat on a flatter pitch, and made sure he was shielded from the new ball. Kohli made use of the opportunity presented by Pujara and he went on to score his first double hundred, which set up a huge win for India.

New Zealand and the Future

Right now, India are in the middle of a Test series against New Zealand. In the first Test, Pujara looked back to his fluent his best as he hit back to back fifties. There is no shortage of Test match cricket for India this winter, with their busiest season ever coming up. This is a great opportunity for Pujara to score some big runs. He has begun the season in fine form, and if he can keep up the same fluidity throughout the winter, there is no reason why he cannot continue to score hundreds. However, series against England and Australia are never easy to play, but Pujara’s record in the subcontinent is phenomenal. He has one of the highest averages of all time when he plays in Asia.

As seen in this article, Pujara’s career has not been straight forward, but has been constantly changing fortunes. It will therefore be key to see if he can reach a level of consistency across the 13 upcoming Tests. Moreover, there have been a few rumours circulating which suggest that Pujara could make a return to Country Cricket next season. Pujara’s stint at Derbyshire was vital to his career and by playing in the English county season he was following in the footsteps of Sachin Tendulkar. One thing is certain, however, which is that if Pujara finds form he will be impossible to oppose.