What's wrong with Pujara? The answer might lie in his feet

He seems more hesitant and is moving his feet a lot less against pace

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Pujara isn't hanging his bat outside off, but his feet aren't doing as much as they need to be  •  David Kapernick/AFP/Getty Images

Pujara isn't hanging his bat outside off, but his feet aren't doing as much as they need to be  •  David Kapernick/AFP/Getty Images

Cheteshwar Pujara: 86 Test matches. 6267 runs. 18 centuries. 46.08 average.
These are stellar numbers, ones that demand and command respect. Add to those the many invaluable Test innings Pujara has played to rescue India in tough circumstances.
He is always the one who grits it out in trying times - the team's insurance policy, which allows others to bat with freedom if they wish, in the knowledge that he will hold one end up.
It's not often that an India batter defines a Test series in Australia, but Pujara did exactly that in the 2018-19 series.
His style of batting is built on patience but it would be grossly unfair to assume that Pujara is only about patience. Then again, patience must not be underrated because it's a tough skill to acquire. It involves, among other things, the ability to switch on and off, and the ability to absorb relentless pressure over extended periods of time.
Having said that, one could have all the patience in the world but if you don't have the game to keep the good balls out, ball after ball, you won't get far. That's the other side of Pujara - he has the batting skills that allow him to not just keep the good balls out but also to score truckloads of runs in cricket's toughest format.
Pujara is exceptional, and aggressive, against spinners. He might bide his time against quick bowlers but he takes on spinners from the get-go. His use of feet against spin is a masterclass. He dances down the track to get to the pitch of the ball against offspinners, and uses the depth of the crease against left-armers or legspinners, to play off the back foot. He does not go aerial against spin, and he doesn't sweep much either, but he still makes quality spinners ineffective. Against pace, he has always preferred to play the waiting game, but it wasn't for the lack of strokes: he would punch, drive, flick, and occasionally pull and hook too.
While his game against spin is still intact, his technique against fast bowling has been under scrutiny of late. Since we started this article with some numbers, let's look at some others for context.
Pujara played in all the Test matches that India played in the first two-year WTC cycle. His average of below 30 in that period can no longer be seen as an aberration.
It's not that he didn't play critical knocks (Sydney and Brisbane come to mind immediately) but his numbers are middling.
What is going wrong with Pujara? Has his technique changed?
To focus on that second question: he seems to be moving his feet a lot less against pace than before, and that has resulted in fewer strokes.
For a lot of batters, stroke-making is about the position of the feet at the crease, and Pujara is definitely one of this breed. He is not Chris Gayle, who would muscle the ball, and he's not Rohit Sharma either, who uses the beautiful downswing of his bat, and the appropriate body-weight transfer, to make up for the lack of foot movement. Pujara doesn't have a high backlift, and he holds the bat near the bottom of the handle, which reduces the bat-swing significantly. That means his stroke-making needs to start with getting the body into the right position to execute shots.
Lately, that has not happened. The front foot hasn't been going down the pitch, and the back foot hasn't been going inside the box either. While there is still a sincere attempt to play the ball on its merit, which is the core of Pujara's batting DNA, the lack of foot movement on either side has compromised his efficacy.
That was the reason for the pattern of dismissals against Pat Cummins in Australia - the ball going away ever so slightly after pitching and finding the outside edge of the bat (which, to be fair, wasn't really hanging outside off). If you looked closely at most of those dismissals, you would find that Pujara was always stuck on the crease. Any ball that doesn't allow you to go forward is meant to be played off the back foot. Of course some balls will induce an error of judgement and you'll get stuck in the crease, but if that's happening too often, the alarm bells should ring.
In my humble opinion, the time has come for Pujara to have a closer look at his foot movement, for that is slowing him down more than the conditions and the situation call for. He has immense belief in his ability to occupy the crease for long durations and he has built a game that's nearly risk-free (the bat rarely goes out past his body) which will hold him good stead often. But if he is not moving his feet to create scoring opportunities - and this has nothing to do with the much-talked-about "intent" or lack of it - he is increasing the chances of getting a ball that breaches his defences sooner rather than later.
Just like during the WTC cycle, Pujara's average in England over nine Tests and two tours is below 30 again, with just one century. What has gone wrong for him in England could be the subject of a longer and deeper assessment. Overseas tours to any country happen only once every few years, and how you're placed with regard to your personal form at those times must be scrutinised closely.
Let me make it very clear that I'm not suggesting even entertaining the thought of replacing Pujara for the England series, for India need an anchor in Pujara for the other batters to flourish.
I remember my time with Pujara in the Kolkata Knight Riders camp in 2008 and one incident stands out. Both he and I were born with two left feet, and while I never took to the dance floor, Pujara did, ever so often. He said the reason was because dancing would improve his foot movement while batting. Trust him to think about batting when in a discotheque!
I admired his honesty and simplicity in saying so, and I've long been a vocal admirer of Pujara on the whole. They don't make them like him anymore: he is keeping a certain brand of batting alive.
Perhaps, it's time for him to put on the dancing shoes and hit the dance floor one more time.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash