AUS vs IND: He bats, bats and bats: Cheteshwar Pujara once again underlines his importance

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Aren’t you bored of batting now?” Nathan Lyon chirped to Cheteshwar Pujara at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) when India toured Australia last time around in 2018-19. It was the last Test match of the series and Pujara was on his way to a marathon knock of 193.

Back then in the 2018-19 series, all the focus was on Virat Kohli, the head of the snake and Pujara kept churning out the runs and kept frustrating the Australian bowlers. When the series came to an end, Pujara had scored 521 runs but he had played a staggering 1258 balls and he alone spent a jaw-dropping 30 hours at the crease in that series. The next best was Kohli who faced 684 balls. None of the Australian players even faced 500 balls in that series.

Fast forward to the build-up for the Test series in 2020-21, there was a lot of talk about Pujara alongside Kohli. The Australian media, players, support staff, everyone was talking about Pujara. Such was the impact he had last time around and how tired they got watching him bat.

 

But this time his role was going to be even bigger. Kohli was going to leave after the first Test and the onus was on Pujara to replicate his 2018-19 feat or at least come close to it. He was the rock of the batting line-up and he had to set up (once again).

It felt that way as he took guard in the first Test and looked all set for a marathon innings once again. He batted 160 balls and was beginning to frustrate the Australian attack. But he failed to convert that start. He fell for a duck in the second innings and two innings at the MCG didn’t go too well either as he made a mere 20 runs in the two innings combined in the second Test.

And it seemed like Australia had found a chink in Pujara’s armour. Lyon kept pegging away from one end, attacking with men around the bat, forcing Pujara to do something out of the ordinary. More importantly, the pacers, Pat Cummins, in particular, found that channel in the fourth stump area, where Pujara kept nicking.

A slight concern was that Pujara wasn’t facing a lot of balls either. Pujara loves batting and he loves batting a lot of balls. Mind you, a lot of balls. He averages 168 balls per Test match and almost 100 per Test innings. He faced just 238 balls in the first two Tests, out of which 160 came in the first innings of the first Test. He failed three innings in a row to even bat long in terms of balls.

 

There was a lot of talk about his strike-rate and how he needs to get things moving. A lot of noise was built up in the lead to the third Test match at the SCG. To make things worse, he got hit on his finger in the nets and he was in pain. But he shrugged that off, put back his pads, gloves and gear on and he was back. That was all he knew to do. Bat, bat and bat!

He did exactly that at the SCG, he did exactly at the Gabba. Not necessarily in terms of runs but he batted balls. He ate up a lot of balls. The strike-rate debate flared up once again and why he isn’t moving the game forward. Pujara shunted all the noise and just kept batting.

If India managed to draw the game at the SCG and breach the Gabba fortress, Pujara has played a massive part. He may not have been there till the end. It was Hanuma Vihari and Ravichandran Ashwin at the SCG and Rishabh Pant at the Gabba. But without Pujara’s 50, 77, 25 and 56, the results may not have panned out the way they did.

People spoke about how Steve Smith made a comeback in the series and hit himself into form. For India, Pujara did the same. Once again, it may not reflect quantitively in terms of runs but Pujara did roar back into form. Everything that Australia threw at Pujara, the Saurashtra-born No. 3 had an answer. Yes, he didn’t convert any of those four scores.

But just look at what he did in terms of balls. 176 balls in the first innings at the SCG, 205 balls in the second innings at the SCG, 95 balls in the first innings at the Gabba and 211 balls in the second innings at the Gabba. He was the catalyst of the draw in Sydney and the win at the Gabba. He just tired the bowlers out and the other Indian batsmen chased in.

 

Three out of those four knocks were half-centuries and they were three of his top four slowest half-centuries in his Test career with the slowest one coming in the fourth innings at the Gabba. He was batting on 16 off 100 balls twice, once at the SCG, once at the Gabba. Yet, it didn’t matter to him. He batted on as if it’s no big deal. In these two games, he was at the crease for almost 17 hours (1010 minutes to be precise in the last two Test matches).

There were a lot of question marks around Pujara’s fourth-innings record, especially away from home. The criticism seemed fair and legit. Pujara’s overall fourth-innings career average was 26.22 with just two fifties before the SCG Test. Away from home, it became worse and it dropped to 10.81 with a highest of 23.

But look what he’s done now. Two fifties in back-to-back fourth innings at two of Australia’s fortresses and India’s nemesis (India had never won at the Gabba and had won one Test match in Sydney). Two knocks that underlined the importance as the ‘rock-solid wall’ at No. 3.

Cheteshwar Pujara

 

And it’s just not eating away balls. He was in pain. At SCG, he took pain killers as the finger which he hurt ahead of the Test match was causing a lot of discomfort. At the Gabba, he took numerous body blows. Pujara kept his body on the line. He got hit on the head, on the shoulder, on the chest, on the finger (again) and looked to be in some pain. But he kept getting back up, ready to fight.

It didn’t matter if Lyon kept attacking offside off, trying to hit his pad, Pujara kept padding it away (there were some concerns but successfully more often than not). The fast bowlers continued in that channel and kept bouncing him as well. But Pujara kept battling away, kept fighting.

 

Yes, Pujara didn’t really contribute in India’s famous MCG win, a game where they bounced back from the lows of 36 all out. But the turn of the year brought Pujara’s importance to the fore.

271 runs, three fifties, 928 balls faced, an average of 33.87 – these are not big numbers by any means. It is barely scored 52% of the runs he scored and 74% of the balls he faced almost when compared to his stats from the 2018-19 series. However, the mountain that he climbed this time around seemed bigger.

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Without Kohli and with the host of injuries, Cheteshwar Pujara, the rock stood tall once again. He may not look the prettiest when he’s at the crease but he did the only thing he knew, bat, bat and bat. And he batted India to a draw at the SCG and then to a win at the Gabba despite not scoring those big hundreds. And also, he is not yet bored of batting.