India's coach Anil Kumble has once again thrown his weight firmly behind Cheteshwar Pujara. Speaking strongly two days after Virat Kohli had verified former selector Sandeep Patil's revelation that the team management had spoken to Pujara about his strike rate, Kumble said strike rate was relevant for bowlers in Test cricket, not batsmen. He went to the extent of saying he was satisfied with Pujara's performance in the West Indies even though he was dropped for Rohit Sharma in the third Test.
On slow pitches against a pretty defensive West Indies attack and field-sets Pujara scored 16 off 67 in Antigua and was run-out for 46 off 159 balls in Kingston before he was dropped. A top-order collapse resulted in his return to the side for the fourth Test, and India have played both Pujara and Rohit in the two Tests since then.
"Even I'm a bit old-fashioned," Kumble said when a journalist asked him about strike rates in Tests. "I know there is a lot of strike rate in the last eight years after the advent of T20. As far as I was playing, in Test cricket strike rates were mostly talked about for bowlers and not for batsmen. That's how I like to look at it. In a team you need different characters, different quality players. Players whose skill sets are suited to different challenges that happen in a Test match. Because we've seen that that's what happens in a Test match. That's the beauty about Test cricket. From my point of view, as far as I am concerned, strike rates are relevant only for bowlers in Test matches."
Kumble complimented Pujara for seeing out a tough period of play in the first session of the series in the West Indies after Shannon Gabriel had removed M Vijay early with a bouncer that also injured his hand. By the time Pujara got out in the 28th over, the sting had been taken out of a limited West Indies attack.
"I think you need to bat based on situations," Kumble said. "Yes, Virat is right that someone like Pujara in the West Indies, probably on one occasion…and he only played two innings. And both those innings were relevant. Even in the first Test match, Vijay got out cheaply and then he and Shikhar [Dhawan] had a good partnership till lunch. That was crucial for the team, because we went into lunch losing only one wicket. And we all know the importance of the first session of a match that is the first Test of a series.
"So the relevance of Pujara is extreme there. But I'm really surprised and a bit disappointed that this talk keeps coming up. As long as someone reads the situation and plays according to the situation, that's what is expected of the team. And he is a very important cog in our team and in our plans. And he's been successful and I know that he will continue to be successful."
Even in a different context Kumble continued to defend Pujara. With the inclusion of Gautam Gambhir in the Test squad as back-up opener, Kumble was asked if Pujara could breathe easy and not be asked to open in an emergency scenario. "I don't think Pujara has ever breathed easily, from all you guys' perspective and some people who are constantly watching him. At least from the team management and the team's perspective, there is absolutely no pressure on Pujara.
"And we've seen over the years his contribution. Even in the last Test match, we saw the importance of his contribution to the team's cause. So I don't see pressure on anyone in this team. The beauty about this squad is that there's hardly any pressure on anyone, yes there is roles and responsibilities but there's no pressure put on any player."
Even after coming back from the West Indies, where Pujara seemed under pressure to keep his place and lost it eventually, Kumble had reassured that Pujara was a vital part of the team. Since then, Pujara has scored a double-century and a century in Duleep Trophy, and two half-centuries on a difficult pitch in the Kanpur Test.