Pujara and the challenge of being a Test-only batsman
I'm a huge fan of Cheteshwar Pujara. What amazes me most about this rather reserved boy from Saurashtra is the way he has snubbed the temptation to alter his brand of cricket to fall in line with the lucrative IPL.
While most batsmen his age who play domestic and national cricket toil to crack the IPL formula, he spends countless hours working on knowing where his off stump is. He not only knows the art of batting time - an art that's nearing extinction with each passing day - he also has the strokes to make his long stays at the crease entertaining.
He starts slow, perhaps a tad slower than most modern batsmen, but has the ability to accelerate once he settles down. He has shots off both feet against the fast bowlers, and isn't shy of using his feet against the spinners.
He rarely takes the aerial route, even against spinners; his modus operandi against them is to get to the pitch of the ball and create angles to find gaps. Many believe, as do I, that he's far more aware of his game and, in fact, has more shots than Rahul Dravid did when he was this age.
The fact that Pujara is fast becoming a one-format player will be his biggest asset and his biggest challenge. It will be his time away from international cricket that will potentially make or break him.
It's a tough time to be a Test specialist. Barring series involving India, Australia and England, most Test tours today are two- or three-match affairs. Two sporadic Test series won't allow you to run into any serious form, and if you do, they're still over before you can stack up serious numbers.
Younis Khan's recent two-Test wonder against Australia was an aberration. How many batsmen will hit the ground running as fast as Younis did and score over 450 runs in four innings? Not many, because most Test series these days don't even offer a couple of warm-up games that players can use to get into the groove. It isn't easy to jump on a treadmill, especially when you haven't warmed up properly.
The other problem Test-only players are likely to face is the gap in quality between the bowlers they bat against in first-class cricket and those in Test cricket. It takes a long time to up your game to succeed against bowlers who bowl 20kph faster than the local boys. Add to that the difference in conditions and your odds of succeeding plummet further.
In my brief stay at the top, I faced this challenge too. While I could easily cut and even pull domestic bowlers, I found there wasn't enough time to do the same against Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee. I had enough time to not get hurried by them, but not enough to cut or pull. In retrospect I can say with some authority that had I spent more time at the top, I would have managed to play those shots against those bowlers. The mind and body get used to reacting quicker if they need to do so day in day out. Yes, there are bowling machines to help you learn, but people who have batted against these will know that it's never the same.
How Pujara deals with this conundrum will define his future. But there's another problem that is demanding his immediate attention. The tour to England exposed chinks in Pujara's armour that nobody knew existed. Time and again he fell to the ball that darted back in after pitching. Swing wasn't a problem, seam movement was. After the ball pitched, he simply didn't have enough time to react.
International cricket is a ruthless place. The moment a weakness is spotted, word spreads faster than a wildfire. It's quite obvious that the Australian bowlers will try to exploit this weakness in the upcoming series.
Pujara won't hit the ball on the up and through the line. He'll wait for it to swing and then present a dead bat close to his body. While his sense of his off stump, and tendency to play in the second line has helped him a great deal, it has also meant that he is often playing outside the line of the ball to cover the away movement. Dravid once said to me that that's the price a good player of the outswinging ball pays: a sharp indipper becomes his nemesis.
Since last summer, I have also sensed in Pujara an eagerness to play T20 cricket, and a sense that he is modifying his game to suit its demands. For it wasn't often in the past that you saw him reach out to balls with his hands, like he did in England. There were a number of times when bat met ball ahead of his body and not under his eyes. That could also have created the gap between bat and pad.
Good batsmen invent and reinvent their technique to stay ahead of the opposition, and I won't be surprised if Pujara has already worked to remove this chink from his batting.