January 4, 2014

Shades of Gavaskar

There's an implacable soundness about Cheteshwar Pujara, the best young batsman in the Test-playing world

Pujara comes with a sense of permanence and unflamboyant excellence © Getty Images

Through the first Test at the Wanderers, television commentators said more than once that Virat Kohli was in a different league from his team-mates. On the evidence of Indian batsmanship in the first innings, they had reason. As the other batsmen groped and played and missed, Kohli took the game to the South African quicks, hooked them off his eyebrows, and made his way to a chanceless, match-saving hundred. And then, in the second innings, he nearly did it again.

You could argue, of course, that commentators are meant to know more about the game and its players than the match unfolding before them, but their focus on the here and now in this instance can be forgiven. India had just been destroyed by South Africa's fast bowlers in the ODI series, which automatically set up the first Test as an ordeal by fire for India's new batting line-up. Were they true Test match batsmen capable of seeing off pace and bounce or were they unsound flat-track bullies incapable of scoring outside the subcontinent? Were their batting records - their many centuries and steepling averages - built on home advantage, on slow, low South Asian wickets, or were they reliable guides to the emergence of a new batting line-up that travelled well?

Kohli's 119 and 96 confirmed his coming of age as an all-weather player. Add to these innings his century and fifty in India's last Test on their disastrous tour of Australia and the temptation to see him as the leader of India's new batting cohort is understandable.

Understandable, but wrong. Barring bad knees or an act of God, the pivot of India's batting for the foreseeable future will be Cheteshwar Pujara, not Virat Kohli.

This is not to devalue Kohli: his bullish self-belief allows him to snatch the initiative from formidable bowlers like Steyn and Morkel, which, given the past travails of Indian batsmen against fast bowling abroad, is a rare and precious ability. Not since the young Tendulkar and, occasionally, Laxman, has an Indian middle-order batsman counter-attacked in this way. But the reason why the chorus about Kohli as the leader of this pack is misguided is that any comparative estimate of batting ability that puts Pujara in the second rank is mad. Pujara isn't just the best Test batsman in the Indian team, he is the best young batsman in the Test-playing world.

Ever since Gavaskar (and Vijay Merchant before him) the run-hungry, top-order batsman has spoken directly to the Indian spectator's soul. He might live for Viswanath's dazzle and Sehwag's pyrotechnics but hardwired into his head is a race memory of batting collapses in the face of fast bowling, so the first order of business is the solvency that only a Gavaskar or Dravid can supply. When Pujara announced himself with a 72 against Australia in Bangalore in 2010, something about the composure and poise of the innings rang bells in middle-aged heads, bells that they hadn't heard in a decade and more.

Ever since Gavaskar (and Vijay Merchant before him) the run-hungry, top-order batsman has spoken directly to the Indian spectator's soul

When Pujara injured himself soon after they sighed and went back to consoling themselves with the twilight of their Immortals, but luckily for them the young lion from Saurashtra came roaring back with four big hundreds, two of them double-centuries. The one thing Pujara had to prove to himself and the world was his ability to make runs outside the subcontinent. There was nothing in his temperament or technique that was likely to prevent him from doing just that, but his one outing to South Africa hadn't gone well. For doubting desis who value foreign runs more than local scores, Pujara had that bridge to cross.

And now he has. Pole-vaulted across it, actually. In the four innings he played in South Africa, he had scores of 25, 153, 70 and 32. The interesting thing about this sequence is that even when Pujara was out early, he seemed set for a long innings. It's the first thing the Indian spectator senses when he's at the crease: there's a permanence about Pujara.

It helps that his dismissals are seldom the result of carelessness. At the Wanderers he went for 25 because Kohli sold him a dummy and ran him out. At Kingsmead he was sawn off at 32 because Steyn angled a ball in, which then, either because it hit a crack or because Steyn is a fast bowling genius, or both, straightened and took the top of off stump. It was the ball of the series and with Pujara in the form he was in, it probably needed to be.

A long Pujara innings seems to follow a pattern. There's an opening passage where he plays variations on defensive themes. Here he is very much like his great predecessor at No. 3, Rahul Dravid, in how late he meets the ball, in his self-denial outside the off stump, in the wristy turn to leg as a release shot that gets him a risk-free run.

After this alaap where time and run rates seem to be of no consequence, Pujara introduces a steady pulse of run-making into his performance. Once he passes a hundred, his innings becomes decidedly uptempo, and by the time he is finished, he has mutated into an aggressive batsman, cutting and pulling and driving his way to the enormous scores that he routinely accumulates in both first-class and Test cricket.

This is evident from his strike rate that is, counter-intuitively, higher than Kohli's, who in demeanour and intent seems much the more aggressive batsman. And though any comparisons with Dravid are presumptuous and premature given that the great man played ten times as many Tests as Pujara has, it's worth noting that Pujara's strike rate is some ten runs higher than Dravid's. There were times when Dravid could seem one-paced; Pujara, on the other hand, seems to routinely move from sedate beginnings to positively brisk conclusions.

The contrast with Kohli is especially marked when you consider the size of their centuries. Kohli has five hundreds but his highest score is 119. Pujara has six, of which two are double-hundreds and two top the 150 mark. Kohli, like Kevin Pietersen, will always give the bowler a chance as he seeks to impose himself on the contest. Pujara will play the percentages and maximise the attritional possibilities that Test cricket affords, to grind the bowling attack down. A Test team needs both sorts of batsmen, but given his consistency, his strike rate and his astonishing batting average, Pujara is the pre-eminent Test batsman in this team.

The Indian batsman Pujara resembles most closely in terms of temperament and ability is Sunil Gavaskar. Gavaskar opened the batting and Pujara does not, but despite that and despite their technical differences (Gavaskar represented a textbook classicism, while Pujara is a notably bottom-handed player) they have in common an implacable soundness, an unflamboyant excellence, an ability to change tempo and a tapeworm's appetite for runs.

Indian spectators of a certain age are always looking, not for the next Tendulkar but for the next Gavaskar, the man who made Indian cricket solvent in the early '70s. They are cautious about naming successors; they once thought they had one in Sanjay Manjrekar, but fine batsman though he was, he wasn't quite up to shouldering that legacy.

Cheteshwar Pujara at 25, with an average in excess of 65 after 17 Test matches has them murmuring again about a second coming. After this brilliant series against the best fast bowling attack in the world (that too in foreign parts), these middle-aged murmurings are threatening to become a roar.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on January 8, 2014, 15:22 GMT

    Both Pujara & Kohli are exceptional players. They deserve praise. But any comparison of one at the expense of the other is disingenuous. Kesavan gets carried away when he declares: "But the reason why the chorus about Kohli as the leader of this pack is MISGUIDED (emphasis mine) is that any comparative estimate of batting ability that puts Pujara in the second rank is MAD (emphasis)"! Ever the bombastic pundit, Mukul proclaims: "Pujara isn't just the best Test batsman in the Indian team, he is the best young batsman in the Test-playing world"! Really? Not only does Mukul "devalue" Kohli (despite his denial), he acts as if he's the "I-know-best" authority on world cricket. Is Kesavan pretending to be a Bradman? Remember Bradman likened himself to Sachin Tendulkar: ''I saw him playing on TV and was struck by his technique ... but I feel that this player is playing much the same as I used to play"! When the great Don spoke, people listened intently. Now that's a genuine tribute, Mukul!

  • Unmesh on January 8, 2014, 9:13 GMT

    Mukul Kesavan is spot on. Cheteshwar Pujara is India's best Test batsman. Period. But I must say that in this particular series against SA, both Kohli and Pujara played equally well. Pujara has insatiable apatite for runs. He makes big centuries both in domestic circuit as well as international cricket. Overall, the future looks bright for Indian batting despite the 1-0 loss in South Africa. Indian batsmen handled Steyn and Co. pretty well.

  • Dummy4 on January 8, 2014, 6:25 GMT

    Everyone talking about Pujara and Kohli but I found another lad who is not in headline but was tremendous Rahane. His growth in series was phenomenal. Dhoni as usual let down. There was time when Kirmani used to bat at no. ten for india followed by real dead tail doshi or maninder. now dhoni and rest are ducks outside sub-continent. so practically we don't expect last five to make more than 50 runs. whereas SA bat till 10, morkel coming at 11 too can contribute. Eng have broad, bresnan, swans, aussie have johnson siddle etc whom bowlers struggle to get rid off (for indian pacers they are almost regular batsman). while we have zaheer ishant shami all just waste refusing to stay at crease. we lost series in SA because our last five onces folded for 16 and in second test for 14. dhoni is weaklink abroad.

  • ESPN on January 7, 2014, 1:36 GMT

    Johan: Pujara is a fantastic test hope for India, we have very few in that category, but his knees are suspect having gone through multiple surgeries. It could be observed during his running many times. One - to protect those legs, two - to protect his technique, he has to be stereotyped as a test batsman. Tough on the lad but the country needs him more in Test matches. ODIs: Won't the Rainas, Dhawans and Rohits be able to manage?

  • randolf on January 7, 2014, 0:45 GMT

    jay57870, You're correct! Ian Chappell did predict Duminy to be the "Next Big Thing"! In fact, he predicted that Duminy might be the next "Brian Lara"; and yes, Sehwag was "The New Bradman"! In other words likening two up and coming young batsmen to the TWO GREATEST BATSMEN OF ALL TIME! While I agree with you that there was a 'REALITY' question in his prediction, I have no problem with the likes of Mukul and Ian Chappell likening players to the best, when they perform well. It is left to the individuals to run with the accolades. As I wrote before, Pujara deserves every bit of credit that's been given to him in this article. The young guy definitely has shades of the TWO GREATEST INDIAN BATSMEN OF ALL TIME! So, what's wrong telling him that? I also love Kohli. Both players are excellent replacements for their predecessors. The slight rivalry-prompting is also healthy. There's no way at this stage of their career to know who is better; but a Gavacar/Dravid clone is a sure Bradman!

  • Dummy4 on January 6, 2014, 17:31 GMT

    I saw the Wanderers test and Pujara, Kolhi and Rahane all batted very well. However, it was Pujara that impressed most. It did not come as a surprise. He will serve India well in the coming years, even as captain. I know Kohli is first in line for that post, but Pujara has the calmness to do well. Why is he not in the limited overs team?i

  • Jay on January 6, 2014, 17:02 GMT

    Some cricket writers have a tendency to construct essays that seem wise & prophetic. Except they overlook the reality: Cricket, like life, has its twists & turns - it's unpredictable! Take Ian Chappell - in his infinite wisdom, he anointed Duminy as the "Next Big Thing" & Sehwag as "The New Bradman"! Oops! That's why Mukul's know-it-all proclamation of Pujara as "the best young batsman in the Test playing world" is so misguided. How's he so certain? Mukul admits any comparisons of Pujara with Dravid as "presumptuous and premature". Likewise, his comparative premise of "Shades of Gavaskar" is questionable. The great Sunny played 125 Tests over a phenomenal 16-year long career. Still Mukul finds in Pujara at age 25 - with just 17 Tests - a "sense of permanence". But does he have the Staying Power? of a Gavaskar? or a Dravid? For Pujara's sake, let's hope these "middle-aged murmurings ... become a roar" don't turn into "In like a lion and out like a lamb". Remember Leo & Aries, Mukul?

  • Jay on January 6, 2014, 16:54 GMT

    Mukul - Beware of "middle-aged murmurings"! Yes, Pujara was impressive in SA with his scores of 25, 153, 70 & 32. And so was Kohli with 119, 96, 46 & 11 with a Man-of-the-Match award to boot. What was most impressive was their partnerships of 89 & 222 at Jo'Burg. So to anoint one (Pujara) absolutely over the other (Kohli) - with "misguided" & "mad" darts at the "chorus" - is disingenuous of Kesavan. How does it not "devalue" Kohli? Really? Instead of conjuring a rivalry, the focus should be on the team. Team India's GenNext players are ready to step into the big void left by the retiring veterans. Especially the young batsmen: Kohli, Pujara, Rahane, Rohit, Dhawan & Co. So too must the young bowlers: Ishant, Shami, Yadav, Kumar, Ashwin, Jadeja & Co. But bowling's been India's Achilles' Heel, not Pujara's "bad knees"! The "pivot" of India's bowling for the foreseeable future is its ability to take 20 wickets. It's about Team India's rejuvenation, not Pujara's second coming, Mukul!

  • Sriram on January 6, 2014, 16:07 GMT

    Pujara, Kholi, Rohit, Rahane, Dhawan, Vijay should be compared, reviewed only after the test series vs Australia later this season. Until then better to reserve comments and rather let them enjoy the season. Indian batsmen no matter what they achieve in India, will only be evaluvated by thier overseas performance, especially on thier contribution to a winning cause. Its true that Indian bowlers have to take 20 wickets to win a game, but its the batsmen that set up the game for them. Kholi and Pujara have shown with thier 100s in Aus and SA that they can survive and thrive under pressure, but its thier consistency and longevity that will mark them as the successors to the Dravids and Laxmans and SRTs.

  • Raj on January 6, 2014, 8:03 GMT

    Interesting article. Both players have exceptional technique, and though their temperaments differ, it is great for the team that they compliment each others' game so well when they are on the 22-yards. I feel it is good for Pujara to have someone like Kohli at the other end who looks to take the fight to the opposition, while he is in his opening defensive passage. I really look forward to some big partnerships by these two in upcoming tours, and further ahead in future.