Pujara's T20 test
Cheteshwar Pujara's quest to adapt to the needs of T20 cricket is still a painfully on-going process, as evidenced by his jarring innings against Rajasthan Royals
Cheteshwar Pujara seemed stuck in an endless, horrifying loop. For what seemed an eternity, all he seemed capable of doing was hitting the ball to long-on for one. Whether he was down the track to Pravin Tambe's legspin or back in his crease to Rajat Bhatia's medium-pace, the same thing kept happening. Pujara would swing with all his might only to mistime the ball, which would then roll slowly down the heavy Sharjah outfield.
One of these efforts provoked a disproportionate noise from the members' enclosure. This, it turned out, had come about after some of the spectators had spotted Preity Zinta in the cubicle-like VIP boxes. Some of them ran over to the wall separating the two areas, passed a couple of perplexed-looking babies and into Zinta's arms. The TV cameras swooped, and Zinta was up on the big screen. Everyone cheered.
Out in the middle, Pujara must have felt more than a touch disoriented. A feeling only heightened as he watched Glenn Maxwell hitting chest-high balls down the ground for four, upper-cutting slower bouncers for six from halfway down the pitch, and batting left-handed when he was getting bored. All of this was keeping Punjab in sight of a big target, but it was throwing a particularly harsh light on Pujara's struggles. In the end, Pujara's 38-ball 40 was the tenth-slowest unbeaten innings by an opening batsman in the IPL. The nine innings slower than Pujara's, however, came in chases of targets below 150. Kings XI, on Sunday, were chasing 192. Without the unusual fortune of Maxwell and David Miller playing freakish knocks, victory may well have been beyond Kings XI.
According to their captain George Bailey, though, Pujara had played an important role in the run-chase.
"In a chase like that, it's always nice to have wickets in hand," he said. "Puj [Pujara] obviously played that role really, really well. He got Maxi on strike well, and then he got Davey [Miller] on strike and he chipped in with a couple of boundaries late when we really needed to find those.
"We know what we are going to get from Puj and we know we want consistency and it's nice to have someone we can bat around. There will be wickets that suit him more and that was the really pleasing thing for me, the way he worked those partnerships with those guys. It's really important for our team."
Pujara certainly didn't get stuck at one end, and there was a period from the 10th to the 13th over when he only faced four balls to Maxwell's 20 (in which he moved from 40 to 88). But it wasn't as if Pujara was calmly slotting the ball into gaps. He was going hard at the ball, and was simply unable to time it.
To watch Pujara bat on Sunday was to watch a man trying desperately hard to show the world that he could crack the T20 code. Pujara radiates serenity when he bats in Test cricket. Here, you could feel the uncertainty and the anxiety to belong. You could see it in how hard he was running between the wickets. You could see his relief when he ran to embrace Miller after he had hit the winning six. There must have been times during his innings when he thought he'd lost it for his team.
In Pujara's batting there raged a fierce battle between his muscle memory, which has been trained over all his cricketing years to tackle the questions posed by the long-format game, and the need to make concessions for T20.
Early in his innings, against Dhawal Kulkarni, he played a shot that wasn't too dissimilar to his trademark square cut and bisected point and third man. But he hadn't gone back and across as he usually does; he had stayed where he was and made himself room, against a ball that wasn't too wide of off stump. He looked unbalanced when he was beaten later in the over, trying to repeat the shot.
Apart from the cut, Pujara wanted to adapt another of his Test-match batting strengths - his footwork against spin - to the IPL. There were glimpses of this during his brief innings against Chennai Super Kings as well, where he charged the seamers as well, but here, against Tambe, he was almost doing it every ball. In Test matches, he skips nimbly down the pitch, reacting to the flight of the ball. Here it looked like he was trying to force the issue, and overcommitting.
It was an innings full of such jarring notes, and watching it was like watching VVS Laxman slog across the line during his largely unfulfilling IPL career. Batting among players as explosive as Maxwell and Miller, however, could give him the space and time to define a role for himself.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo