India vs Australia: Cheteshwar Pujara's calm and steady approach makes him an immensely valuable outlier for the team
As India landed in Australia to defend the Border-Gavaskar trophy, Australian media was abuzz with anticipation. Most of the chatter was about one man only, Virat Kohli, around whom the host broadcaster built an entire series promo. There was hardly any talk about the guy who top-scored against them with 405 runs in the series the last time these two teams played each other, in India.
One reason for the lack of hype around Pujara is this perception that his game is not suited for overseas conditions. It's the reason he was dropped for a Test twice this year, once in South Africa and Australia.
While Pujara's overseas record is definitely not as flattering as his record at home, the other criticism of Pujara's game which is entirely ill-founded is that he bats too slowly. Pujara's game is built on occupation of the crease. Strike rate is a useless statistic in Test cricket and asking Pujara to score at a quicker rate only messes with his head. Pujara's approach may be a deviation from the teams', but if he is allowed to play his game the way he knows best, he can produce an innings like his hundred on Day 1 at Adelaide.
An attacking player, say a Sehwag will often let the team down by getting out to a loose stroke. You learn to take that in your stride though, saying he was playing his natural game and when it comes off, he can produce match-winning innings single-handedly. Similarly, a naturally defensive player may also let the team down by being too obdurate when the situation demands him to be more adventurous, but he too can single-handedly set up the game when he has a good day at the office. Pujara may not turn the game around in a session as a Sehwag would, but that's hardly a consideration when most Test matches finish well within five days.
This Indian team management often talks about showing good intent on the field. However, that intent isn't going to help you much unless your technique and mind are honed to play the game that the Test match format demands. As Pujara has shown time and again, the only intent that matters in Test cricket is the intent to occupy the crease.
Pujara's biggest strength is in not allowing scorecard pressure to dictate his game. At Johannesburg earlier this year, Pujara took 54 balls to get off the mark. Most batsmen would be itching to get off the mark to erase that duck against their name, not Pujara. More importantly, he plays the same way even at the First-Class level. In the last match he played for Saurashtra, his strike rate was the least among the Top 5 batsmen. Pujara's batting follows a rhythm that he doesn't break at any level he plays, Pujara pays his dues to the craft of Test batsmanship.
At a time when some top rank players choose to sit out the Ranji season or play the occasional First-Class game, Pujara is available for Saurashtra whenever he gets a chance to play. He also benefits (at the cost of his bank balance perhaps) from not having an IPL contract, so he can use that time to play county cricket, something most other Indian cricketers can't afford.
Pujara is no strokeless wonder either, as he proved later in his innings against Australia at Adelaide. He just doesn't want to play any unnecessary shots at inopportune times only to break the shackles.
It would be unfair to expect other Indian batsmen to match Pujara's hermit-like calm and discipline on this Australian tour. Pujara's game is built on tedious preparation. However, they can still take away something from his effort on Day 1 at Adelaide. The next time India bats, the batsmen should aim to set themselves up to bat the entire day. Not hours or sessions, but think of being there at stumps. Play the game that suits you, but knowing that you want to spend an entire day at the crease may calm some of the nerves that compel them to play so many shots early on in their innings.
Pujara is a real outlier among modern-day batsmen, probably the last we will ever see of his kind, a proper Test match specialist. He enjoys going under the radar of the media hype machinery. It works in his favour. Even if there is the box office pressure, it doesn't bother a master craftsman and that's what Pujara keeps proving every time he strides out to the crease.