Shades of Gavaskar
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.
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