Does Pujara need to show more intent?
He was the only Indian top-order batsman to last 100 balls in Cape Town, and looked in control most of the time, but given the approach his captain has asked from his batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara could be under a bit more pressure than you might think
"… At the same time, we need to have intent because the kind of bowling attack they have - especially on these pitches they get extra bounce and they get extra pace off the wicket - you can't be in a zone of not having intent and see off 35-40 overs. You need to find the perfect balance to do well in South Africa especially where there is more bounce."
Look away if you are Cheteshwar Pujara. These are words from your captain after twin collective batting failures from your team. Virat Kohli said this when asked of the importance of seeing off the first 35-40 overs, after which, in Cape Town, the ball became soft, the seam sat in, and Hardik Pandya scored 93 first-innings runs to keep India alive in the Test.
Notice that Kohli did not pick out leaving or defending, which Pujara did a lot of. "Batting with intent" was once again the cry from the captain. "You can't just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not have intent at all," Kohli said. "You might get out, but it's important to keep coming at the bowler and making them feel, 'If you make an error I am going to score.' So I think that message needs to go pretty strongly and you need to do that as a batting unit, collectively."
This might not be time to debate whether this is the right attitude. A fact right now is that the captain is convinced there needs to be more pressure on the opposition bowlers. Where does all this leave Pujara? Under pressure in the best-case scenario, which every Indian batsman should be now. In the worst-case scenario, under extreme pressure or, who knows with this team, even out of the next Test because Ajinkya Rahane might need to be brought back in and India might not be ready yet to drop Rohit Sharma based on one Test.
This is the nature of the beast: India seem to be expecting similar pitches all series long and want to get runs before the one ball with their name on it eventually arrives. Do unto others before they do unto you. They don't want to allow Vernon Philander to have the kind of pitch map he had against Kohli: not one straight ball that he could work to leg, not one up there for the drive. Kohli is of the opinion that this South African attack is too good in these conditions for you to be waiting for a loose ball to arrive. You have to force them to bowl those.
"Credit has to go to their bowlers also because they created unrelenting pressure, and it is something that we need to counter," Kohli said. "Maybe we need to be more positive in the next innings, and take their bowlers on and get good runs on the board just like they did when they were put under pressure. That's probably one way of encountering that kind of bowling attack, but again they force you to play good cricket in every over you play against them. I think it is a big credit to their bowling attack but as a batting unit we really need to step up."
India understand they will not get the kind of half-volleys Jasprit Bumrah - he can only be partially blamed because it was his first first-class match in over a year - dished out on the first morning to let South Africa off the hook. There is also realisation that if their bowlers can replicate their second-innings effort, India can run the remaining Tests close. If you put teams under pressure in close situations, there is no telling what mistakes they might make.
It has to be firstly acknowledged what Pujara can do. When everybody seemed to be playing loose shots with intent, Pujara kept the good balls out. He was one of the reasons for Pandya's success.
This brings us to Pujara. India will, or at least should, be happy with his ability to absorb pressure like he did in the first innings, but will want him to put some of it back on the bowlers because, as Pujara himself would have seen, when there is no relief from the pressure applied by the bowlers, you can make mental errors. While Pujara will know he got a brute in the second innings that would have got most batsmen out, he will be livid with the shot he played in the first innings: following a wide ball first ball after lunch after having fought through the first session. If there was talk of intent during that lunch break, we will never know. From what we can surmise from Kohli's demand for intent: India want him to be 46 by the time he makes such an error, and not 26.
Numbers are piling on now. Since the start of 2014, Pujara has averaged below 24 outside Asia. The question of intent will be posed to Rohit too, who scored even slower than Pujara in the first innings. Except that Rohit didn't look in control, while Pujara did, as he has done in numerous innings outside Asia in the last four years, which shows in how he has made 13 scores between 20 and 73 in 24 innings.
The discipline Pujara displayed in the first innings is for all to aspire to. It has to be firstly acknowledged what Pujara can do. When everybody seemed to be playing loose shots with intent, Pujara kept the good balls out. He was one of the reasons for Pandya's success. He was one of the two India batsmen to face 100 balls in the match - Bhuvneshwar Kumar was the other, and he did so against the older, softer ball - and he had a control percentage of 84.76, behind only Kohli's 84.9%.
Kohli faced only half the balls Pujara did, and scored just one run fewer. Again it is up for debate whether it is rich to talk about Pujara's intent when he was the only specialist batsman to have lasted 100 balls in the match, but under the current leadership there could be a case made for recognising the moment when you are in and transferring some of the pressure back on to the bowler.
In the first innings, Pujara scored just eight runs off the 24 balls that were full, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data. To be fair to him, most of these full balls came when he was still new to the crease. Pujara was in control of 78 balls he faced, but scored just 22 off them. The other avenue for scoring might have been the 15 short balls, which he didn't score off. There were bouncers among them, there were rising balls aimed at his ribs; those deliveries are best handled the way Pujara handled them, but there were four or five cutting opportunities he let go of. There were wickets falling around him, the bounce was unreliable, but if the initiative had to be taken it had to be taken off these balls.
If there is indeed a case to be made to ask Pujara - and not Rohit, for example - for more intent, it has to be made sensitively because you definitely don't want Pujara to be playing an unnatural game early on and in the process lose out on the solidity he brings. You want the intent in addition to the solidity, not at the cost of it.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo