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.
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.