We are in the latter stages of watching Cheteshwar Pujara perform his duties as a Test batsman. Be it the last series, the last year, or the last handful of years, we are nestled somewhere in the autumn and winter of a prestigious career. Watching this version of the great man we have in front of us, the particular iteration, is Pujara in the latter stages of his India career?
Today, day before yesterday saw the best of what this iteration can offer.
On day four of the Lord’s Test between India and England, Pujara faced 206 deliveries and scored 45 runs. That is not normal or routine, even for him. Since 2000, there have been only three instances of a player facing that many deliveries and scoring so few runs. At 1.3 runs per over, this was Pujara’s slowest-ever innings of 100-plus deliveries. If you found yourself thinking, as Pujara patted another Sam Curran half-volley straight to an English fielder, “was it always like this?” then the answer is an emphatic and unequivocal no. The outright fact is that this version of Pujara is different.
For one, he didn’t always play in quite this pronounced way. From 2016 to 2019 (his second big peak), Pujara attacked about 20% of the deliveries bowled to him. But in the last 18 months that has fallen through the floor to just 9%. He has cored at just 1.8 runs per over, consistently, over a good number of Tests. Pujara has changed into an even more exaggerated and even more extreme version of the batsman he was when at his best in Tests.
The stats show than when he was at his peak, Pujara scored at two runs an over against good-length deliveries. Even a man whose primary ability is to absorb pressure still managed to convert some of it into currency; that is, into runs from good balls. Since the start of last year, that scoring rate against good balls has dropped to 0.7 runs per over. Against spin there’s still that languid elegance, those inappropriately fluid wrists on the occasional dismissive cut. But there is no longer that base level ticking over against pace.
But for another – it’s not working. Since the start of 2020, there have been 29 players to face 1000-plus balls in Test cricket. Pujara’s batting average in that time is 25.95, which is the lowest of the lot – albeit, he’s kept in close company by Ajinkya Rahane, averaging 27.36. Nobody attacks less. This change in approach, this intensification of an outlier method, has not brought straightforward success.
On Sunday, when Pujara was joined by Rahane, India had a 21% chance of victory according to WinViz, with England at 60%. As you’d expect, with that pressure on him, Pujara responded by putting on his out-of-office message and escaping to the safety of his defence for a bit. With England swarming, he sat and refused to score for a quite remarkable 35 deliveries. The Lord’s crowd revelled in the pantomime of it all, but tragic tropes were never far away. This was a man, with the world against him, retreating into the singular aspect of his technique, and his selfhood, that has brought both his highest highs, and his lowest lows. Pujara sat and he defended.
It didn’t stop there. After facing 100 balls he had only 12 runs to his name. After 200, that had swelled to 40. There was no gear change, save for the odd dance down to Moeen Ali, a gesture to the fans who’ve been there from the start. Pujara down the track, averaging 220 in Test cricket, is all but trademarked. He sat back, playing late, waiting for the game to come for him, blessed with the mentality for that wait to last hours, days, in an age of minutes.
An unbeaten 40 from 200 deliveries is a remarkable thing. Only five times this century has a player reached 200 balls in an innings with fewer runs to their name, and three of those innings have been played by a man of historically unparalleled versatility, AB de Villiers.
At moments on Sunday, it felt like we were in the middle of something special. As the Lord’s crowd applauded and cheered for his 200th ball, there was something in the air that suggested Pujara was in as well as on. The draw if it had been then it had a lot to thank Pujara for, but that is not a bad thing. If India won this Test they have done so by foremost overcoming the time pressure, but it’s also England’s primary rival, a rival endorsed and boosted by Pujara’s approach.
The football writer Rory Smith, of the New York Times, often refers to a theory regarding managers and their relationship with strategy. He suggests that as managers get older, winning matters progressively less, and being proved right – their strategy, their personal calls, their ‘agendas’ – matter more.
Pujara doesn’t seem to be the sort of man to harbour such a mindset, but you wouldn’t blame him were he to say something on these lines. He has had a remarkable career with a throwback technique and tempo; the virtue of that technique is written right there in black and white in the record books. He has spent a career trying to convince people it works, and there have been vast passages, years and seasons on end, where his argument has been all but perfect. Yet again, there is tragedy laced into the fact that it’s as he nears the end of his career and his sporting articulacy fades, that he will be ‘proved wrong’.
And yet, for all these obvious signs of decline, the slide into self-parody, this is still one of the great batsmen. You would have to be a fool to dismiss his role at the ‘Gabba earlier this year, where he made 56 off 211 balls in one of the greatest fourth innings heists of the modern era. As Rishabh Pant slammed the Aussie seamers to every corner of Brisbane, the pain in the bowlers’ faces was more than partly the result of Pujara taking blows for almost six hours straight. His defence, statistically and obviously superb, still has a place in all but the most perfect side. The fact India have the resources and ambition to build that side, is the obstacle he must overcome.
Pujara’s technique is, and always has been, built from not getting out to the good balls – but he can’t keep out the unplayable ones. The snorter that Mark Wood delivered to him, aided by extravagantly inconsistent bounce, was the sixth toughest he faced in the Test according to our model. Even the soft, low hands of Pujara can’t react to that level of unpredictability. Comparable to his dismissal in the first innings at Sydney, it was always going to take something extreme to remove him; for the good of the Test, the Lord’s pitch leapt into life, and provided exactly that.
It is ironic – there’s that tragedy again – that as with the ‘Gabba, the success or failure of Pujara’s approach in this Test will be determined by a player as far from his own approach as any you could imagine. In Brisbane, Pant’s final hour brilliance elevated Pujara’s knock to greatness, sprinkling the stardust of scoops and slogs onto his soft hand defences. Pujara is no longer able to win matches off his own back, to drive the result in his direction alone. Now, he needs help. He’s earned it. Whether it likes it or not, India owes him it.