There is so much talk about ‘intent’ and ‘strike rate’ in this T20-inspired generation that people forget that a Test match is played over five days. And the basic art of Test match cricket is your ability to bat time.
When Pujara eventually walked away after gloving a beast of a ball from Mark Wood, thereby opening the door for England, he was doing so after facing his 206th ball.
It was the 53rd time in his battling career that he had faced 100-plus balls and the fifth time this year. He has faced 200 balls in an innings 22 times. This year alone he has faced 941 balls. Against England in England, it was the sixth time in 22 innings that he had faced 100-plus balls.
So why is Pujara criticized? Maybe because the Pujara of today is clearly very different from the Pujara who walked in to replace Rahul Dravid at No. 3 in a tense fourth-innings run-chase in Bengaluru on debut in 2010 and belted a stroke-filled 72 in a famous India win.
Because he played in Dravid’s position at No.3 in that knock and his game also was based on a strong defence, like the former India skipper, people just thought that a ready replacement for Dravid had been found. They anointed Pujara as the next Dravid. Mind you, he himself never asked for those comparisons. He just batted. And batted.
But it’s clear that that comparison had started to become an uneasy cross to carry. It wasn’t so tough for Virat Kohli to take over the mantle of batting at No. 4 from Sachin Tendulkar, who had made that spot his pin code.
Pujara, like Kohli, never had the cushion of a fat IPL contract or the fitness of the skipper to run ones and twos and be undroppable in white-ball cricket. When he started developing a few technical flaws, he started getting bowled or LBW often and even lost his place a couple of times. Those moves made him even more conservative and believe it or not, even more defensive, as he knew only success in Tests could keep him in the team.
Today, even half volleys sometimes get patted back by Pujara. There is no explanation for such petulance, except the fact that he loves to defend and bat time. And he does it because that is his ‘natural game’.
If a Rohit Sharma, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli or a Rishabh Pant can get away by getting out to an attacking shot, can’t Pujara be allowed the ‘luxury’ to bat the way he knows best?
Some of India’s low-scoring Test heists on brutal pitches have been built on the back of Pujara’s grit and the willingness to wear blows on the body as badges of honour. Bengaluru 2017 vs Australia, Johannesburg 2018 vs South Africa are shining examples.
If the bowlers got a score to bowl at, even a modest one, it is thanks to Pujara and his good friend and teammate in Indian Oil, Ajinkya Rahane, who also made vital contributions in those wins.
Pujara, with his ‘intent’ to be stubborn, shut out the noise from social media and batted the way he knows best to allow India to stay afloat till Day 5.
Criticise him for all you want. But first let’s celebrate him. Or at least respect him. That’s the least he deserves.