Relief for India as Cheteshwar Pujara overcomes struggles with the bat

Rohit Sharma brought up a half-century
August 27, 2021

This is what happens when you show some intent and transfer the pressure back on the bowlers. You get the catching fielders out of your face, easy singles open up, good balls become less threatening, and you also help your partners out by keeping up the scoring rate. And when the score board keeps moving, the next batter walks in confident even if you happen to get out.

No, sorry, this space is not going to go down that route. This is a description of events in reverse order. The opposite happened at Headingley. The struggling Cheteshwar Pujara got three leg-side half-volleys in the first 13 balls he faced, and hit them for three fours. According to Cricinfo logs, he last faced a leg-stump half-volley during the World Test Championship final, and before that in Sydney after grinding his way for 150 balls against some challenging bowling.

Pujara has not been scoring runs that you expect of a Test No. 3. No funky stats can couch that. Pujara's average between his last Test century, in Australia in January 2019, and the start of this Test had been 28.03.

In between, Pujara had made himself useful by playing innings of sheer bloody-mindedness in Australia, which tired the bowlers down and perhaps made it easier for those who followed both in the same match and also as the miles started to show in the bowlers' legs as they went deeper into the series. All that is secondary, though, a bonus. The cold number was in Pujara's face: average of 28, no hundreds. That's what matters more.

Not long ago, Pujara's proclamation that he got the ball of the series from Pat Cummins became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who knows, self-parody even as he kept getting out to good balls. James Anderson to him at Trent Bridge is certainly a contender for the ball of this series, swinging in, pitching on off, making him play, and then seaming away.

Don't let it fool you. In this series, there were dangerous signs. At Lord's he pushed away from the body to edge to slip, which he rarely does. In the first innings here, he followed the movement with his hands and edged through. There was a worrying trend developing: he had done the same in Southampton during the World Test Championship final.

That newly wavering discipline of Pujara was never tested in the second innings at Headingley. Pujara's strike rate is perhaps the purest gauge of the quality of Test bowling. For he won't counterattack or take undue risks against good bowling. And he won't spare bad balls. That's not intent, that's Pujara. That he outscored Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli in partnerships with them should tell you he got more loose balls than he usually gets. And he was good enough to put them all away.

Attacking Pujara's stumps has of late been the plan for most pace bowlers. That they kept drifting to middle and leg and further down could be lack of execution, but it is likelier that they went too aggressive with him, perhaps because the pitch doesn't have the assistance in it that it had on the first day.

According to Cricinfo logs, Anderson has never bowled more balls at the stumps or down the leg side to a single batter in a single innings in England. Pujara has never hit more boundaries off pace than the eight here in one innings in the arc from midwicket to fine leg. Outside Asia, the most such gifts he has been given is four in an innings.

All this might sound like discrediting Pujara's effort. It is not. This was still excellent Test batting. If they bowled too full, he drove or flicked; if they bowled too short, he cut or pulled; if they bowled good balls, he respected them. Something he has done all career.

This innings was actually a throwback to how Test cricket used to be not long ago. Either through an ordinary or a shallow attack or a flat track somewhere in a series, batters used to get some respite. Some might even say these were the matches that let the struggling batters play themselves back into form. Headingley in the second innings was a rare flat pitch and slightly easy bowling. In Test cricket today, especially in and against India, New Zealand, Australia and England, you don't get any such innings.

Pujara's partner for a long time in the middle should know. He has been waiting for the loose balls to score off with little success. Sharma's comeback as Test opener has been nothing short of a revelation. At the end of the third day, having scored a fifty full of tough discipline, he spoke about the changes he has made to succeed as an opener.

"When I started opening, I knew what the challenges are in these conditions," Rohit said. "Keeping that in mind, I made certain changes to my game. I know runs are most important but it was equally important that I spend time in the middle in these conditions.

"The more time you spend out there, the easier it feels. Then again their bowlers are very disciplined. They just keep bowling in one spot all day. They don't leave their spot. I also want to play my shots, but I don't get the opportunity. Because they keep challenging you in the channel. It is important to respect that channel."

If Rohit is going at a strike rate of 39.45 in this series - 42.08 if you add the two Tests in Australia - you know how difficult it is to score runs briskly. Pujara didn't open some magical tap before walking out for the second innings, but benefited from what looks either a flawed plan or faulty execution.

This kind of an innings used to be a regular occurrence not long ago. Coming as it has done in a particularly relentless era and to a batter struggling for runs, it will be great relief. How much the confidence gained from this matters will only be known when they get back to the channel that Rohit mentioned on the first morning of a fresh Test.

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