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The hoo-ha surrounding Pujara's overseas sickness

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Thus read Cheteshwar Pujara's innings in South Africa earlier this year. The impermeable brick wall of India's Test batting line-up, the Saurashtra batsman is often hailed as the glue around which the likes of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane brandish their more adventurous willows. Yet, in unfamiliar conditions, particularly when the bowling team dominates proceedings, Pujara often seems to be stuck in his own shell.

It is alright if he absorbs all the pressure, settles in and makes it count, like he does at home. That hasn't happened on seaming, unfamiliar decks, though, with the no.3 often throwing his wicket away after intent-less knocks that not only put pressure on himself, but also his partner at the wicket.

In South Africa, the one time Pujara made any kind of impact was when he consumed 179 balls for his half-century and was dismissed soon after at a strike rate of 27.93. While that rate appears shabby, one could argue Test cricket isn't about strike rates. But in a country where scoring quicker has been more effective and efficient, Pujara was simply found wanting.

Earlier in the series, the Indian skipper had criticized the approach of consuming balls without looking to exert pressure on the bowler. He did not really take names, but it wouldn't be a wild guess to assume he was referring to Pujara.

 

“We need to have intent because the kind of bowling attack they have – especially on these pitches they get extra bounce and they get extra pace off the wicket – you can’t be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs. You can’t just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not have intent at all. You might get out, but it’s important to keep coming at the bowler and making them feel, ‘If you make an error I am going to score.’ So I think that message needs to go pretty strongly and you need to do that as a batting unit, collectively,” Kohli had said.

 

As India arrive in England, little has changed except for the fact that Pujara played out a few county matches. In his first ten innings of a month long stay at Yorkshire, Pujara might have made more friends than runs. His 132 runs at an average of 13.20 in First-class cricket was ridiculously poor, even by Ishant Sharma's standards.

The focus is back on intent, for some reason or the other, as India prepare to take on England. The move to bring Adil Rashid out of red ball retirement shows that the hosts are desperate to seal a huge series win. Pre-series talks are in full swing; Jimmy Anderson inaugurated things with the customary dig at the India skipper. But it is Pujara who will have his heart in his mouth as he walks out to bat, hoping to prove his detractors wrong.

 

In South Africa, at Johannesburg, he took 53 balls to get off the mark. The lack of intent, which greatly worried this Indian management, is possibly one of Pujara's biggest hauntings in these conditions. There is proof to show he isn't looking to change his approach. At Yorkshire, in a home fixture against Surrey, the no.3 batsman took 41 balls and 73 minutes to get off the mark. He could not kick on either, with his knock ending at 23 in 111 balls.

 

It was so appalling that even Sachin Tendulkar, who normally does not go out of his way to comment negatively, quipped that it was “far too much”.

"It's far too much,” Tendulkar had said on Pujara's county knock. “Again, I'm not trying to be critical here. It's good to be cautious, good to respect the conditions, but..." He let the others finish his sentence.

Pujara averaged 22.20 the last time India toured England, the worst average for an Indian no.3 batsman in England. Even then, he had the tendency to consume a lot of balls, settle in and then throw it away, exemplified by a 117 ball 28 at Lord's.

It is evident what haunts Pujara. He is stuck in his shell, relies on his tried and tested approach but fails to gather enough confidence to push on from there in foreign conditions outside the sub-continent. Pushed out of his comfort zone, the Saurashtrian is comfortable playing himself in but can't seem to find the next gear, which is sorely hurting India, who rely on him to form the bridge between the openers and the middle-order.

The upcoming series could be a make or break one for him, particularly since his approach contradicts the views of the current captain, coach and management. At home, Pujara is king. But so are many others. It is in alien environments that India need their no.3 to move mountains. He has his task cut out against some formidable fast bowlers from the England ranks but expect Pujara to give it his all, even if it means he has to wage a lonely battle.

 

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