From the time he made his Test debut for India with a sparkling half-century, Cheteshwar Pujara has been handed several epithets by fans and pundits alike. Most of these centred on his batting at No 3 in the wake of Rahul Dravid’s retirement.
Pujara – a classic product of the old-fashioned first-class format – scored tons and tons of runs before breaking down the door. He is one of the few old-fashioned Test cricketers remaining in the modern era who plays for time, occupies the crease, tires the bowlers and scores big runs.
Since 2012, Pujara has been India’s go-to No 3 batsman in Tests. At home, he is second to none, but there have been question marks on his overseas form during his career. With horror tours of England, Australia and New Zealand in 2014, Pujara lost his place in the Test side.
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Then in 2015, during India’s tour to Sri Lanka, Pujara returned to the starting XI for the third and final Test in Colombo where he was used as a makeshift opener and scored a defiant and match-winning century. Thereon, he dominated the 2016-17 home season with big centuries and then in 2018, when the next overseas cycle started, he scored a century in England.
However, it was India’s historic tour of Australia in 2018-19 that saw Pujara at his productive best overseas with 521 runs, inclusive of three centuries, in four Tests to be named Player of the Series. Fast forward to the current Australia tour, and Pujara has managed to score only 215 runs in seven innings. Pat Cummins has been his biggest nemesis, dismissing him five out of seven times.
The question is, then: what has changed in Pujara’s batting? He is batting in the same conditions as 2018-19 and against the same bowling attack. The answer is hidden in his batting technique. Ever since he walked burst onto the Test scene, Pujara has been bowled 26 times and lbw on 16 occasions in 135 innings which equates to 31.11%. Or, simply put, every third innings.
To overcome this issue, he is playing inside his body and covering the middle-stump line. While doing this, Pujara is playing the first line or trajectory of the bowl. So, in this case, if the bowl swings away from him a little or even holds its line, he is forced to play at deliveries he was leaving before this tour.
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That’s where a world-class bowler like Cummins has exploited this weakness. He is not swinging every bowl he bowls to Pujara. Essentially, he comes from wide of the crease and angles the ball back into the right-hander.
There is a fielder at square leg, a leg slip, a midwicket and a mid-on. There is no easy single on offer. Due to this batting technique deficiency of Pujara, as discussed he is forced to play at almost every Cummins delivery. With the aforementioned field setting, he cannot get off strike and the pressure mounts. He has not been guilty of playing false shots like most of his India team-mates, but that inability to rotate the strike and dominate like in 2018-19 (he hardly plays the cut or pul nowadays) has resulted in a scratchy Pujara.
The second question is: how can he overcome this deficiency? Will he again start playing deliveries outside the line by planting his front foot forward and covering the outswing If he does, then the old problem of bowled and lbw dismissals could recur and this will result in a Catch 22 situation.
However, there is a solution. An old-fashioned one but effective one. What Pujara could do is not commit to the delivery and instead gauge the line first, see the movement and then bring the bat into play. This has been his common mode of dismissal to Cummins and Josh Hazlewood on this tour.
If the ball comes in after pitching, Pujara can take it inside his body and defend it. If the ball goes away, he can then gauge the incoming trajectory and not play inside the line. He can wait for the ball to swing and then leave or defend straight towards mid-off rather than extra cover.
If he could work on this aspect, he may have a great home series against England. What are your thoughts?