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Sanjay Manjrekar

How has Pujara overcome his weaknesses overseas?

A lot of it has to do with his character and temperament

Sanjay Manjrekar
Sanjay Manjrekar
When the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid retired, there was concern in Indian cricket about who would fill their big boots. I remember saying at the time that more important than finding replacements for them, if India could find three world-class bowlers, they would end up winning more Test matches, especially overseas.
India have that scenario now. They have three, if not four, world-class bowlers in their playing XI, the rarest of rare situations in Indian cricket. It's because of this that despite their batting being below par, India have managed to win three Tests in their last three overseas series, with the last series in England being really closely fought (the scoreline of 4-1 was not an accurate reflection of how close the actual contest on the field was).
That is why this Adelaide win did not come as a surprise to Indian fans, for even while losing in England, India had showed that they were good enough to beat this Australian side in Australia.
Why such faith and optimism? It's the bowling.
India's current run is a demonstration of how important it is to have a champion bowling attack to be a champion side. Yes, you need class batsmen too, but it's the bowling that allows you to rule the cricket world, like West Indies and Australia did for years. The lack of such bowling is why India have not been able to dominate, despite having the fab four batsmen playing together in the 2000s.
Having said all this, let's be honest, India would not have won in Adelaide without Cheteshwar Pujara.
Those who have been reading my tweets and views on Pujara might have sensed that I have not been a big Pujara supporter of late. My first introduction to him was when he was he was thrust into the No. 3 position versus Australia in Bangalore in only his second Test innings, in a match where India needed 207 to win. Pujara scored 72.
You could see during the course of that innings, one of his quicker ones, that here was a player, not very stylish nor athletic, not gifted with the stroke-making ability of a Rohit Sharma or a Yuvraj Singh but one who was willing to give everything for the team - a man who put the biggest price possible on his wicket.
Soon after that Test came the tour to South Africa, where he failed in three innings. However, on his second tour to South Africa, at the Wanderers in 2013, came that glorious 153 against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. In that innings I saw decisive footwork from Pujara - back and forward, depending on the length of the ball - and I thought, "Wow, this guy is not just a flat track bully." Such batsmen are priceless for India, considering the team's dubious overseas record.
After that, though, I became a Pujara sceptic. Following that hundred in South Africa came a string of low scores overseas, and he also lost his place twice during India's overseas tours of 2014 and early 2015. This is when Ajinkya Rahane and M Vijay emerged as better all-conditions players.
Pujara made a comeback in Asian conditions, getting a typical gritty hundred opening the innings in Sri Lanka, where he carried his bat. Good for him, I thought, but his technique worried me.
While others in his team attack out of instinct or insecurity, Pujara attacks only when he is running out of partners. What a blessing that is for India
This was the period when Indian batsmen were trying to undo the damage that Duncan Fletcher had done to their techniques, with the wide stance and the big prod forward no matter what. Here was Pujara in Sri Lanka, getting hit on his gloves and his body by short balls, and where were his feet? Both outside the crease - he was fully stretched on the front foot to short balls. Pujara is not a hand-eye player, so technique is his forte. How will he manage in tougher conditions with this technique, I thought.
After a truckload of runs in home conditions came his third tour of South Africa, where Pujara struggled again. His defence was getting breached often now, and his numbers in overseas matches were extremely unflattering at that point. For a man with extensive experience of playing overseas, he just wasn't getting enough runs away from home.
This is when Pujara lost my support. I thought: with India being a country with such batting riches, shouldn't we look for other options?
Pujara's career took an unexpected turn, for me, when he got that 132 not out in England in Southampton earlier this year. He showed sceptics like me that even if his defensive technique was not the greatest, and his overseas numbers were discouraging, he was going to go out there and put that same price on his wicket, no matter what. In that innings he defended dourly not just for a 40 or 50, as he had been doing for a while overseas, but for a hundred.
My heart went out to him when I saw him try to retain strike and start playing the big shots (an unnatural game for him) for the team while batting with tailenders. He did the same in the first innings of this Adelaide Test. While others in his team attack out of instinct or insecurity, Pujara attacks only when he is running out of partners. What a blessing that is for India.
So what has changed since that Southampton hundred? Well, nothing. Yes, since that hundred in Sri Lanka his front-foot commitment is markedly reduced, but this is not the real cause.
While some of his batting colleagues have allowed poor form to afflict their minds, Pujara has not. Notwithstanding what has happened before, he has gone into every innings with the same mindset, and with a readiness for a marathon fight ahead. He has trusted his defence, though it is not foolproof. But above all, it's his nature that has allowed him to stay on track and get the overseas runs that were evading him.
By nature Pujara looks different from the average international cricketer. You see it in the way he carries himself. When he succeeds after an extended run of failures, there is no display of angst against anyone, no spewing of venom; he is just happy.
What is temperament after all? A sporting term for one's nature, is it not?

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. @sanjaymanjrekar