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Pujara's role in India's away wins


Cheteshwar_Pujara_Test_Cricket_India2018 has been a memorable year for the Indian cricket team, with as many as four away Test wins. The year ended brilliantly with their first Test victory in Melbourne since 1981. The Indian pace bowling trio of Ishant, Bumrah and Shami delivered some great performances throughout the year, including the 9-wicket match haul for Jasprit Bumrah in the Boxing Day Test. His match record of 9/86 is the best for an Indian pacer in Australia.

As India won the first Test of the 2018/19 series on Australian soil, Virat Kohli became the first Asian captain to win Tests in Australia, South Africa and England in the same year. What this fact doesn’t note is that Virat Kohli needed Cheteshwar Pujara on every occasion to win an away Test. Numbers show why Pujara’s knocks have become an essential driving force for Virat Kohli’s team in away Test matches, including the latest win at the MCG.

Pujara’s last few Test performances have confirmed him as one of the key members of the Indian top order. But it was not easy. There have been many occasions in his 8-year career when questions were raised regarding his temperament and, more surprisingly, his technique; especially during away tours. He is considered to have a solid technique, perfectly suited for the longest format, but earlier he could not deliver long innings away from home.

It was during the 2015 tour of Sri Lanka that Pujara rose to the occasion and proved his worth as a Test batsman away from home. It was the third Test of the series. No one except Pujara and tail-ender Amit Mishra could reach 50 in India’s first innings. Pujara scored a classic 145* and carried his bat, helping India to put a total of 312 on the board. This was the platform for India’s eventual victory by 117 runs. This match was a kind of comeback for Cheteshwar Pujara after a span of 8 months and he made the best use of that opportunity. Again, in India’s 3-0 series whitewash in Sri Lanka in 2017, Pujara had 2 key hundreds in the first two Test matches.

Then 2018 happened. Virat Kohli’s team won four Test matches in South Africa, England and Australia in the same calendar year. Pujara contributed handsomely in all those matches.

When the Indian team travelled to South Africa in the beginning of 2018, they faced an extremely tough pitch in Johannesburg. The conditions were so suitable for fast bowling that the visitors went with five seam bowling options, including Hardik Pandya. Electing to bat first, India were all out for just 187 runs, of which Pujara and Virat Kohli scored 50 and 54 respectively. With all the support from the pitch, Indian bowlers did extremely well to send South Africa back to the pavilion for just 194 runs in the first innings. Jasprit Bumrah was outstanding and took 5 wickets. India eventually won by 63 runs, thanks to Mohammed Shami’s 5-wicket haul.

The win in England was massive for Indian cricket team. After the heavy defeat at Lord’s, it was important for them to bounce back. In the third Test at Nottingham, led by contributions from Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, India scored 329 in the first innings. In reply, England could only muster 161 runs. India needed to secure a huge lead to win the match. The skipper took the role of an anchor while Pujara provided much needed support. He scored 72 runs, pushing the score to 352. India set a target of 521 runs, and then it was just a matter of time. India won the match safely by 203 runs. Incidentally, Pujara scored a wonderful century in the 4th Test in Southampton in a losing cause.

Last but not least, his two match-winning centuries in Australia displayed the utmost class. The first and third Tests of the 2018/19 Test series in Australia again showed why Pujara’s performance has become an important part of India’s away victories.

The Adelaide Test was only the 6th instance of India winning a Test in Australia. Pujara made this happen almost single-handedly. With almost no big contribution from the entire batting order, he scored his 16th Test hundred in the first innings of the match and helped India take an important 15-run lead. In the second innings, he showcased his wonderful batting ability with a well-made 71, supported by Rahane’s 70. Pujara took charge of the game with Kohli after two quick wickets fell, and helped India set a target which was just out of reach for the fighting Australians.

During the Boxing Day Test, both captains were not sure what to do after winning the toss. Kohli took the strong decision of batting first. Pujara was at the crease around the hour mark on day one and for the next eight hours he displayed great patience and responsibility, holding the innings together and building a match-defining partnership with captain Kohli. This may have been the slowest of his 17 Test centuries, but that did not detract from its importance. He played a significant role in tiring out the Australian bowlers, which was later utilized by Rohit and Rishabh to get some quick runs in the end.

With the Indian bowlers in sparkling form, Australia conceded a lead of 292 runs in the first innings and could only play catch up till their last wicket fell just after the lunch on day five. Pujara became the only player to make at least one 50+ score in all four Indian away wins in 2018. This is a magnificent example of his consistency and importance in India’s current Test set up.

Before the beginning of 2018, Pujara’s average in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries was below 30. In 2018, Pujara’s average has improved to 36.14, with 4 centuries and 3 fifties. In those four wins, his average went close to 55.

By now, it is evident that Cheteshwar Pujara is probably not the right choice for the limited overs formats. It will be beneficial for the team if he builds on his performance in 2018 and delivers more such innings in the longest format, as he can certainly enhance the team’s reputation as one of the better travellers in Indian cricket history.

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