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Pujara's overseas transformation

Cheteshwar Pujara celebrates Once thought of as an underperformer overseas, Cheteshwar Pujara is now a proven batsman in tough conditions (Getty)

May 2, 2020

During the 2018 county cricket season, during a match between Yorkshire and Surrey, Cheteshwar Pujara was batting. In the build-up to the test series against England, he decided to play for Yorkshire to acclimatise to the foreign conditions and help his preparation. In that match, he took 41 deliveries and 73 minutes to get off the mark.

The Rajkot-born number three batsman made 23 in 111 balls before being dismissed and it was these types of innings, which he had played in South Africa earlier in the year, that drew immense criticism. Even Sachin Tendulkar could not hide his thoughts when asked on the knock Pujara played for Yorkshire. “It’s far too much, it’s good to be cautious and respect the conditions but,” Tendulkar said.

This cautiousness had troubled Pujara in test matches in the SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) throughout his career and he paid the penalty once more by being dropped for the first test match of the series in England in 2018. But, since his comeback to the side in the next test at Lord’s, the Indian test team has started to realise the true value of a player like Pujara.

Yes, India’s batting has still been found wanting in overseas conditions since, as their losses in England and New Zealand highlight. But Pujara has shown the type of resilience and reliability that was expected from him all along. His performances, especially in Australia during the 2018-19 series, earned praise from all over the world and he played a major part in India’s victory. How did he do this? I had a look at some of the data, and there was a surprise.

During his career, Pujara has been part of the Indian test team for two major overseas cycles from 2013 to 2015, and 2018 to 2020 in the SENA countries. That is why for this analysis I have looked at Pujara’s performances in these two cycles only and in particular his performances in the SENA countries. He has surprisingly struggled on the two overseas tours to the West Indies in his career, but the SENA countries are naturally thought of as the toughest countries to score runs in for Indian batsmen.

Between December 2013 and January 2015, India did not play a single test match at home as they travelled to South Africa, New Zealand, England and then finished the cycle in Australia. India played 13 test matches in this period and the initial statistics for Pujara do not read as well as he would have liked. Pujara played 12 test matches, before he was dropped for the final test of the Australia series in Sydney, and scored 763 runs at an average of 31.79. Twenty-four innings saw Pujara raise his bat for a century just once, and for a half century a further three times. He was the fourth highest scorer for India during that period, but he was expected to score the similar number of runs to Virat Kohli, who led the way despite a horror tour of England.

Being a number three batsman requires perhaps more skill and adaptability than any other batting position. You have to be ready to come in by the second ball of the innings and play like an opener to save the game, or build on a good foundation to get your side to a winning position. While Pujara expertly handled the different situations during the South Africa tour in 2013, where he had scores of 25, 153, 70 and 32, he drew criticism from many for his slow play. Take for example India’s only test victory in that period at Lord’s in 2014. India were sent in to bat on a very green wicket and were expected to be rolled over for maybe even less than 100. India made 295, thanks in large part to centurion Ajinkya Rahane and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, but Pujara too had a key role.

He made 28 from 117 deliveries. While many commentators and viewers were frustrated at the lack of intention in rotating the strike, Rahane acknowledged his teammate’s role in taking the shine off the new ball and enabling the middle order to come to the crease when conditions were easier. He played similar innings in Brisbane and Melbourne later in 2014, where he scored 18 and 25 respectively at a strike rate of less than 36. Kohli, Rahane and Murali Vijay had much more productive tours of Australia but the role of support Pujara gave should not be overlooked.

Yet he was dropped and the main criticism was his seeming unwillingness in changing the strike to put pressure back on the bowler. In that period between 2013 and 2015, Pujara had a test strike rate of 39.02. While he was at the crease, Pujara was part of 1.79 partnerships on average and team India scored 70.17 runs on average per innings. After his dismissal, the average number of runs scored by India was 198.54. So Pujara was undoubtedly a key member of the batting lineup, but maybe not as crucial as he was expected to be. What changed in the next overseas cycle between 2018 and 2020?

The overall statistics read much better for the right-hander. Thirteen test matches in these four countries saw Pujara score 999 runs at an average of 41.62. He and Kohli stood apart from the rest of the batting lineup and are now rightly recognised as India’s two best test batsmen across conditions. While a large majority of these 999 runs were scored in Australia, some innings in South Africa, England and New Zealand signal a change in Pujara’s mindset.

What makes Pujara so brilliant at home is his ability to soak up pressure at the beginning, taking his time to build a strong enough read on the conditions and wear out the bowlers to take full advantage. There were clamours after his performances in South Africa that Pujara needs to work on improving his strike rate and alleviating some of the pressure on the likes of Kohli and Rahane. But in his seven 50+ scores after his half century in Johannesburg in 2018, the average strike rate Pujara has maintained has been 42.04. So not exactly much more than before. And in actual fact throughout the period of 2018 to 2020 in these four countries, Pujara’s average strike rate was 27.98 which is much lower than his strike rate in the 2013 to 2015 period.

This lower strike rate is having an impact on not only Pujara’s own batting, but those batting around him. He is now at the crease on average for almost three different partnerships during an innings, which explains an average of 93.36 runs being scored whilst he is out in the middle. But also his dismissal is now almost as important a scalp for the opposition as Kohli. Once Pujara is dismissed, the average number of runs India scored after in these four countries was 135.29 compared to 198.54 in the previous overseas cycle. This importance is now not only recognised by the team management but also opposition players.

Pat Cummins in the past week on an Instagram Q&A said Pujara was the toughest batsman to bowl at in tests. “Pujara was a real pain in the backside for us last summer, he just has ultra concentration all day,” he said. Fellow Australian Nathan Lyon was also singing Pujara’s praises during a press conference with Australian journalists. “I think Pujara flies under the radar a little bit when you look at the Indian cricket side. Obviously, you look at Rahane and Virat and these guys. But Pujara is a wall, or the new wall I should say,” said Lyon.

So should Pujara think about improving his strike rate? He was again ridiculed for his innings of 11 runs off 81 balls in the first test against New Zealand this year. While these types of innings look horrible on the scorecard and in a retrospective sense can be looked down upon, Pujara is a unique player. He is perhaps one of the last batsman in the world who does not care about his strike rate or how he looks while scoring runs. And judging by his success in overseas conditions in the toughest of places recently, he should remain true to himself. It is what makes him such a sensational test match player.