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Cheteshwar Pujara knows what he is doing

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Cheteshwar_Pujara_India_CricketHe is silent, very reserved and does not smile very often. The stubble, no matter how dense, thankfully cannot hide the smile when it does appear. And it was evident recently in Kanpur. Then at Kolkata. It grew wider in Indore, turning into a controlled jubilation of sorts.

After all, he's been in some form, having scored 515 runs at 73.6 in his last 8 innings before the Visakhapatnam Test.

Come January, he will be 29. And, hopefully, will be celebrating 3500 Test runs. Fresh from raising his bat for his 10th century, a special one given the precarious early start with India struggling at 6-1 and then 22-2, this is an important moment in his career. But for a purist like him, form is not a destination but an ongoing journey.

Life can never be easy for an Indian no. 3

He has to learn to love difficulties, treating them tenderly with the soothing balm of his willow. Given his 10 hundreds and 10 fifties leading to over 3000 runs, he's fared very well. But it isn't just about the runs; it’s about the position where the runs have to be scored that highlight the enormity of responsibility that Pujara is shouldering.

Apart from being a position that requires him to be a mainstay, the number 3 spot is marked with an acute challenge: living up to the expectation of someone who ended his career with 13,228 Test runs. But surely, Dravid scored most of his runs while Test Cricket wasn't yet threatened by the enormity and repetitiveness of ODIs and T20s.

This is Pujara's era

He has to not only make the best of himself in the only format where his skills present him the opportunities, but score regularly enough to ensure fans' attention in his game remains intact and the liking for Test cricket doesn't wane in the increasing influence of wham-bam style of T20 cricket, a reality that can't be shunned today.

If you happen to follow his career, then you will find that his problems, technical in his context (especially on overseas wickets), often marginalize the plaudits he's earned. As of now, these glitches seem sorted. In 2014 in England, our efficient number 3 had problems with the rising ball and the sharply incoming delivery. He spent time in the nets. Even went back to Ranji and played a great deal of domestic cricket to get better. In between, he played county cricket for Derbyshire where he was at his stoic best.

But the real revelation came at the Sinhalese Sports Club, Colombo in 2015. Drafted into the team as a replacement opener after the regulars faced injuries, Pujara held the Indian fort courtesy a fluent and determined 145 not out, becoming the 4th Indian after Gavaskar, Sehwag and Dravid to carry his bat. This was his 'comeback' knock, fighting his way to lead India to a memorable 117-run win. He batted with number 9, Amit Mishra, to craft a 104 run stand that ultimately ensured India clawed their way back.

But his problems didn't end there.

The Question of his strike rate

Mercurial leader and aggressive front line batsman Virat Kohli soon suggested that Pujara should 'up' the ante of his scoring. Falling strike rates won't lead him far. For a moment, the fan of classical Test batsmanship even argued why the suggestion was made in the first place? Then we all conceded that the dynamics of scoring nowadays are finding comfort in more free-stroking ways, even in Test cricket. How else would you justify constant 500 plus and even 600 run scores being belted so often? But does that mean the ones who contribute important 80s and 90s hold no substance in front of the big hitting centurions?

But ever the watchful and determined lad, Pujara took note of Kohli's advice. No, he didn't become Sehwag. Nor did he switch to switch hits against the recent touring Kiwis.

Look at his new numbers

Kanpur: 62 off 109 at a strike rate of 57 and 78 off 152 at 51. Kolkata: He came in at 1-1 with Gambhir gone and then at 28-2 saw Vijay walk back and finally when Kohli departed at 46-3, he dug in. By the time his top score of 87 off 219 was crafted, India were steady at 187-4. But there was a silent reply Pujara offered. If he's to score freely and up the ante of his personal strike rate, how is it that India branch out against a quick flurry of wickets? Shouldn't the mainstay be at the crease in a crisis; rotate strike, see through the tough periods and fend off flaying attacks?

Regardless of Rahul Dravid's shadow, the lad has been scoring at a better rate than he was in 2014 and 2015. At Indore he again top scored for India, helping his side to compile a solid second inning lead. Compiling his 8th hundred, he scored 101* of 148, a strike rate of 68. And that was the same Pujara who in first inning scored 41 off 108 at a strike rate below 40.

Good form wouldn't desert him that soon and with the departure of Kiwis and the arrival of the English, Pujara reinforced the idea that his recent fluent run wasn't going to be a one off event. The fan is ecstatic to see the youngster convert slow, steady starts into useful hundreds, importantly coming from the top of the order. Cook and his men, who had gladly raised their bats courtesy glowing first inning hundreds, were sure of decimating India. Pujara accepted the challenge with glee and replied with 124 off just 180. His strike rate, this time nearing 70 posed a defiant reply to detractors, doubters and critics. His batting, resplendently adapted to score quickly without compromising on his technical prowess and relentless powers of concentration suggested that the Saurashtra lad is ever the team-man, unafraid to rise to the occasion when demanded.

But the question still remains?

Should Pujara necessarily start scoring quickly, go for the big hits, the blistering blows that while affording him quicker runs pose an equal threat of him losing his wicket? Mind you, his is a prized wicket for bowlers. So while Kohli isn't wrong in his advice and is surely a product of firebrand modern day cricket, Pujara is a different creature altogether; a product of simplicity, emphasizing method over madness, unnerved by the grind that leads to accumulation of runs instead of possessing demonic powers of destruction.

Perhaps it's best to stand back and admire Pujara's hunger to make it count when the chips are down. Perhaps it won't hurt to see a young man come into his own, knowing that he is all ears to a word of advice and determined to correct his pitfalls.

Perhaps it's better to leave him alone. He knows what he is doing.

 

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