Cricket is a game that provides different kinds of joys. The joy of watching a soothing cover-drive from the bat of Shubman Gill. The joy of watching certain Rishabh Pant pummel bowling attacks. But none can provide joy whilst being in pain but Pujara. His solid blocks have a different fan base.
One image that resonated with me post the Gabba Test of all was this one where someone had photoshopped one of the images of Pujara replacing him with a tall wall with fielders all around and Nathan Lyon bowling. It pretty much summed up what Pujara symbolizes. You throw rockets at him. You target his head, hand, neck, and every part of his body. And he wouldn't flinch. If Dravid was wall for his dead bat defense, Pujara is a warrior for defending the ball with various parts of his anatomy and, of course, the willow in hand.
When asked in an interview if retiring hurt was an option after multiple blows, he shot back, "Retiring was never an option." The closest that Pujara came to being a human on final day of the Gabba Test was when he was jumping in pain after being hit on fingers by a vicious Pat Cummins delivery. Millions of Indians could feel that pain simultaneously as he mattered as much.
But, he kept on batting, with four fingers to grip the bat, defending, punishing loose deliveries, ensuring that India had his solidity for as long as 80 overs or so. Be it his SCG knock or the Gabba one, it was played keeping in mind the best interests of the team. But all that Pujara could average was 33.88 in the Aussie Tests. If it was only this series, one could let it go but his numbers have been on the downward spiral for sometime now.
The downfall since the epic 2018/19 Australia series
Cheteshwar Pujara had arguably the greatest away series for an Indian batsman in Australia in 2018/19 when he scored 521 runs. But since then, he has been part of five Test series and barring the one against Bangladesh where he averaged 54.50, his second best average in any series has been 36.25 against South Africa at home last year.
He has gone through a period of 13 Tests and 22 innings without a century. In fact, his average has been quite poor at 31.13. Let's take a look at how Pujara has fared in comparison to his teammates if we take five Tests and a minimum of 10 innings into consideration:
This is surprising, isn't it? Pujara is the worst batsman in terms of batting average. It is also notable that all the senior players namely Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and Ravindra Jadeja are averaging 50 or more, which highlights the country mile difference between him and the rest. Even the likes of Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant, who have been in and out of the team, have averaged more.
The road ahead
Has Pujara been as bad as the numbers suggest? Not, at all. In fact, he was one of the major reasons behind India's epic SCG draw and the Gabba win. Is his place in any danger given the rise of youngsters and how strong India's bench strength is? Not yet. Is he going through a lean patch? Yes, but in the last two Tests, he was back in form and has made three fifties out of four innings. But, it clearly outlines one thing - Pujara needs to capitalize on his starts. He has been able to cross the 50-run-mark on eight occasions but none have been converted into hundreds since he last played a marathon knock at SCG in 2019. For a batsman as good as Pujara, this is certainly an area he would need to improve on.
Also, there is no doubt that being a good team man is well appreciated. No wonder, he batted too slowly even by his standards in the SCG and Gabba Tests respectively as per the team requirements. He faced 686 deliveries in the last two Tests. Now, normally going by his career strike-rate, the right-hander would have scored almost 309 runs facing these many deliveries but how many did he make in reality? 208.
If he needs to better his average, as runs will always be the major criteria to judge players years down the line. He can play his usual self and still help India in their cause. There were hardly any demons in the pitch and the two last games were great wickets to score and pile on big runs.
This is in no way a critique of Pujara's general style of play. There was in fact ample evidence that his slow-batting doesn't impact others as it was made out as Pant and Gill batted at their zenith with Pujara at the other end. But, India's no.3 wasn't himself is the point here. There is a thin line between playing for yourself and the team but often good players are able to strike a fine balance and that is where the Saurashtra batsman can do better. Not that his team would also mind if he scores more at any point of time with the same solidity.
With the England series coming up, it will be a great chance for Pujara to take his good form and confidence from Australia into the four-match series. He loves playing against England at home as his average of 64.53 suggests. In fact, only once out of five times has Pujara failed to convert his fifty into a hundred versus them at home, making four centuries. It's about time for the 32-year-old to finally get back to his old big run scoring merry ways as that's the only thing he needs at the moment apart from hiring a good PR team, thanks to all the unnecessary flak he receives on social media despite being a shining armour for India.