August 31, 2015

Why is Pujara given short shrift?

He averages better than Rohit Sharma but still has to fight for a place in the Test side, mostly because he doesn't play ODIs
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Cheteshwar Pujara only made it back to the Test team as an injury replacement, though he has done better in the format than Rohit Sharma has © AFP

When Cheteshwar Pujara finished unbeaten on 145, having carried his bat through India's first innings at the SSC, his career Test average topped 50. He is the only current Indian batsman to achieve this distinction, and a distinction it is. There's much about batsmanship that is unquantifiable, but pundits and players alike agree that a 50-plus average over a reasonable number of Tests bears witness to a first-rate batsman.

Pujara is a first-rate batsman. He is 27 years old, he has played 27 Test matches, and this should be his batting prime, but he is in this team on sufferance. Had either of the two first-choice opening batsmen, M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, been fit, Pujara would still be mooching around the margins of the squad, carrying drinks in for the men in the middle.

When he passed 50 in this innings, Sanjay Manjrekar asked Sunil Gavaskar on commentary if Pujara had done enough to regain his place in the team or whether he needed to clinch it with a hundred. Gavaskar's elaborately considered opinion was that in the current set-up, Pujara needed a 150 to be in serious contention. A century and a half? What team of titans was this? And what bastion of Bradmans was Pujara trying to breach?

When the Indian team came out to field, his lowly status in the team's pecking order was evidenced by his gear: he was wearing a helmet and shin guards under his trousers, a sure sign that he was the designated short-leg fielder. This scary position is generally reserved for the rookie in the team, because no one wants to be maimed by a meaty pull. In a culture where seniority counts for a lot, the helmet and guards told you how far Pujara had fallen. How had it come to this?

Career averages are a poor guide to current form. So while Pujara at 50 is ahead of Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Dhawan (all clustered around the 45 mark) and well ahead of Vijay and Rohit Sharma, his form since the tour of New Zealand in February 2014 has been poor. A couple of fifties in 20 innings is poor return for a batsman of his quality, and in that time his middle-order comrades, like Rahane and Kohli hit a rich vein of form.

Pujara is a first-rate batsman. He is 27 years old, he has played 27 Test matches, and this should be his batting prime, but he is in this team on sufferance

Also, because of Kohli's decision to play five bowlers, there was one less batting place to go around. This meant that with Dhawan, Vijay, Rahane and Kohli being automatic choices, Pujara was competing with KL Rahul, who had distinguished himself in Australia with a century, and that perennially promising talent, Rohit.

Rahul is a fine young batsman who managed two centuries in his first four Test outings, but his future in the Indian team clearly lies in one of the two opening slots. If Dhawan and Vijay stay fit and maintain their form, it's conceivable that Rahul might set a challenge for the No. 3 position. But it's hard to see him edging Pujara out in a head-to-head comparison, especially after Pujara's comeback hundred.

Pujara's real rival in the middle order is Rohit.

Rohit is older than Pujara by a year, but to hear his admirers in the cricket establishment talk, he is a volcano of virginal talent about to erupt. After two hundreds against West Indies on debut, he has done little or nothing. If you compare his record to Pujara's since they last scored a hundred each, Rohit averages a little over 25 and Pujara just over 26. Yet it was Pujara, with much the better career record (Rohit averages 37 in 14 Tests), and unarguably the better Test match temperament, who was left out of the last Test in Australia, the Test against Bangladesh, and the first two Tests of this Sri Lanka series. Pujara has had to smuggle himself into the team by the back door by playing in the unaccustomed position of an opening batsman.

Meanwhile Rohit has had a free run in the middle order. He was played at No. 3 (Pujara's preferred place, where he has played nearly all his Test cricket) till the first Test in Galle, and when he failed there, Rahane was kicked upstairs so that Rohit could find a more sheltered billet at No. 5. When Pujara was grinding through his massive innings at the SSC in Colombo, the commentary team, made up of Manjrekar, Gavaskar and Aakash Chopra, came to the curious conclusion that Rohit was tailor-made for the No. 5 spot because he could "express" himself and play with the tail. Suddenly it was as if Rohit had some natural lien on the lower berth, while Pujara would have to duke it out for a top-order place with the likes of Rahul and Rahane, or even one of the settled openers.

We've been here before. There was a time when VVS Laxman was overlooked in favour of Yuvraj Singh, who was inferior to him by every measure known to Test match batsmanship. Yuvraj didn't like fast bowling and showboated when he should have knuckled down. But he periodically edged Laxman out because his patrons would talk up his attacking gifts or, all else failing, his ability to bowl left-arm slows. And the reason why these arguments carried the day was because Yuvraj, like Rohit, had an advantage that Laxman (later in his career) and Pujara can't match: a place in the ODI squad.

Rohit is one of a long line of contemporary batsmen who play Test cricket because they look good playing ODI cricket. He won his Test place on the strength of his spectacular displays as a one-day opening batsman and he has held it in the expectation that his berserker ability to hit limited-overs double-hundreds might rub off on his Test match form.

Rohit has been given a long run in the Test side, and allowed to move up and down the batting order, despite not having scored a hundred since his debut series © Associated Press

It is a truth increasingly acknowledged that a young man possessed of an ODI berth stands a better chance of holding down a Test match place than a young man without one. Pujara doesn't play limited-overs cricket in any format for India and hasn't been able to find an IPL franchise that wants him. Rohit, in contrast, is a lion in Lilliput: the shorter the format, the better he gets. This counts against Pujara because while Rohit and others like him are constantly in the public eye because of the modern cricketing calendar, he is out of sight and mainly out of mind except when Test cricket looms on the horizon.

The camaraderie that comes from constantly playing ODIs and T20 cricket, the sense of always being in the mix, just never happens for Test match specialists like Pujara and Laxman (in his later years). Multi-format players are buoyed by their versatility; their team-mates in these formats, their captains, their sponsors, want them to succeed. The force, so speak, is with them. Someone like Pujara has to constantly make his own weather. The juggernaut of limited-overs cricket, which underwrites the game, has no interest in him.

To point this out is not to suggest that someone is to blame for this state of affairs. It is the way cricket has evolved, and players like Yuvraj and Rohit can scarcely be blamed for their good fortune. It is simply to ask for greater discrimination from the powers that be when it comes to administering Test cricket and picking Test teams.

It is not too much to ask that selectors be self-conscious about the dangers of allowing the stardust of limited-overs cricket to bedazzle them when they make their choices for the Test team. Nor is it conspiratorial to point out that Pujara's time in the wilderness had something to do with the fact that he belongs to an unfashionable cricketing province, Saurashtra, which has great cricketing pedigree but counts for nothing in the councils of the BCCI. Mumbai, of which Rohit is a native son, counts for a great deal.

It may well be that Test cricket is dying. Perhaps the empty stands in Colombo where Kumar Sangakkara played his last Test were a sign. If this is true - actually, especially if this is true - all the more reason to make sure that this great game is carried to its ghat by the right pall-bearers, by serious men.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Viknesh on September 4, 2015, 16:00 GMT

    Even in first test against SriLanka, I was disappointed to see a person like Pujara's Caliber has been left out of the squad. I see no defense in the squad leaving out Pujara. He is one of the best batsmen against spin unlike Rohit Sharma was good against seamers. If Pujara has to sit out for SA test, then I can say that there is complete politics in selection.

  • Dummy4 on September 4, 2015, 4:49 GMT

    There is no harm if Pujara does well in home matches.Are you supposed to lose matches?

  • Jay on September 3, 2015, 14:09 GMT

    Check it out: Kesavan's cricket stories reveal weird plots spun around dubious "rivalries"! Take Pujara vs Kohli. In his Jan '14 "Shades of Gavaskar" story, he "devalued" Virat by asserting "any comparative estimate of batting ability that puts Pujara in the second rank is mad"! Mad? By Dec '14, Kesavan changed his mental tune totally. He heaped high praise on Kohli for his 2 tons (115, 141) in Adelaide. The hot chase ended in a loss by 48 runs. So raptured was Mukul in defeat (weird) that he wanted caretaker captain Kohli to take up the job "permanently"! What's more, he did not mention Pujara - with "his sense of permanence" - even once in that story (weird)! That rivalry disappeared. Just like the non-existent VVS-Yuvi rivalry! So now he picks Pujara vs "real rival" Rohit! By playing one at the expense of the other, he whips up the emotions of their followers. It's disingenuous. Just think: They're teammates, not rivals. It's the opposing team that's the real rival, Mukul!!

  • Rohan on September 3, 2015, 8:42 GMT

    Would someone care to check the premise of this article? I can't believe so many people commenting on this article on an argument made by apparently a historian (with weak memory i guess) that Yuvraj was preferred over Laxman. Do people know that Yuvraj played 40 tests for India and in 35 of those VVS Laxman also played. And in the remaining 5, VVS Laxman was injured. Ha!

  • Rohan on September 3, 2015, 8:38 GMT

    For someone who has debuted 18 months back, and has played 14 test matches in his entire career (11 of which in last 3 weeks), Rohit Sharma gets a lot of flak from all kinds of cricket analysts. Rohit is no bradman but he's a decent bat and it would be too premature to say that who of Rohit or Pujara is better. Pujara has played test cricket for 5 years now, has played double of test matches of Rohit, and i must say, he still looks pretty ordinary when playing against good bowlers. And all this talk about Pujara averaging 50 is because he has scored most of his runs in India at an average of 70. Let Rohit play next 4-5 test matches in India and i am sure Rohit will be getting close to an average of 45+

  • Dummy4 on September 3, 2015, 3:42 GMT

    Pujara runs in NZ,AUS,ENG. Though less run, he helped to take shine of the balls, which helped other batsmen. Runs(BF)Opposition, 1(3) New Zealand, 23(71) New Zealand, 19(59) New Zealand, 17(50) New Zealand, 38(69) England, 55(101) England, 28(117) England, 43(83) England, 24(52) England, 2(6) England, 0(6) England, 17(38) England, 4(19) England, 11(19) England, 73(135) Australia, 21(38) Australia, 18(64) Australia, 43(93) Australia, 25(71) Australia, 21(70) Australia

  • Dhruv on September 2, 2015, 20:15 GMT

    If no one owns a batting position, same way no one owns captaincy. Right Mr. Kohli? Why not replace you with Rahane/Ashwin or Pujara?

  • Ashok on September 2, 2015, 19:40 GMT

    @JAY57870: Your hero worship of Rohit Sharma is commendable. He is a good short format bat but lacks Pujara's Test temperament, Technique & Footwork. That is the truth & averages confirm it beyond doubt. On the 4th day of Test 3, Rohit did score a valuable 50. But Mishra, the Bowler, got 59 in the first innings on a more difficult pitch + 39 in the second. Ashwin the off spinner got 58 in the same innings @#9 in partnership of Mishra, Yadav & Ishant. Binny the all rounder scored 49 too. In fact Rohit's average in this Test was only 38 while even Mishra averaged 49 & Pujara averaged 145! Eventually it is the total runs scored & individual average that wins a match. Pujara is one of the best bats in the World, not just in India. It is unjust & shameful of Kohli & Shastri to make a mockery of him by making him a "Drinks Boy" when benched & a shooting target of him by fielding him close in, when he plays!

  • Dummy4 on September 2, 2015, 18:37 GMT

    @VRDD : BTW Rohit Sharma averages nearly 60 in Ranji trophy and made it to the Indian team even before IPL started and Bhajji has 400 test wickets, selectors took a punt on Bhajji because of his massive test experience but it didn't work out, While i 100% agree that IPL shouldn't be an yardstick for tests but it definitely should be criteria for ODI's as modern day ODI's are just an extension of T20 .

  • Dummy4 on September 2, 2015, 18:30 GMT

    everyone talking about pujara's 145 but forget to tell second innings duck....if dhawan or vijay not fit then pujara will open otherwise he will be out of team till kohli plays with 6 batsman....

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