The topic of Cheteshwar Pujara tends to polarise views.
And while polarising views is anything but abnormal in the context of Indian cricket, it seems curious that a man who has well over 4000 runs in Test cricket, averaging at a stratospheric 53.38, and who has managed 1068 runs in his last 10 Tests at 71.20, is even thought of in terms other than superlatives.
The problem, however, is not too difficult to gauge. As Sarah Waris has done a fantastic job in laying bare the lopsided nature of his performance when it comes to home and abroad statistics, I need not go through them again. The numbers are quite eloquent, especially about Pujara’s shortcomings in the more arduous lands for batsmen.
It suffices to say that Pujara’s record is magnificent in India (average of 64.12) while ordinary in Australia (33.50) and West Indies (31) and less than ordinary in England (22.20) and New Zealand (15).
And while his average of 44.42 in South Africa is reassuring given the forthcoming Indian odyssey, if one looks closely at the numbers, it emerges that the small sample size has resulted in the statistic being bloated by one century on a flat surface. In fact, he has crossed 50 only twice in his 7 innings in that land.
Yes, it is not unknown, although often ignored by his fans, that Pujara has struggled abroad. A No 3 batsman with that sort of a touring record may not be ideal as India square up to visit South Africa and England in immediate future.
Inability to accelerate
However, what seems a greater problem in careful analysis is the same trait which fans often mistakenly infer to be ‘Test temperament’. Namely that of excruciatingly slow batting.
Slow batting perhaps has some merits. While saving a match, it may be a valuable trait … sometimes. However, the great Test teams were never built on slow batters. Especially the men who trotted down at No 3 for such teams have always been known as excellent stroke-players.
Be it Charlie Macartney of the 1920s Australians, or Don Bradman for the subsequent Australian teams, or Viv Richards for the world conquering West Indians, or Ricky Ponting for the Aussies on either side of the turn of the century, the one-drop position has always been pivotal and dominated by men who could take the opposition by the scruff of the neck and swing the game around.
Great teams play to win and to win one needs to score runs and score them quickly.
There have, of course, been habitually underdog sides who have played for the honourable draw and avoidance of defeat at any cost, and these teams and their fans have glorified the slow batter. But that is definitely not the way to play for wins.
Test cricket may be the traditional form of the game, but it did have sufficient space for attacking batsmanship. The limited overs formats, although they did revolutionise batting in a number of ways, did not really kickstart attacking batsmanship in Test cricket. There have been attacking batsmen in the traditional format from the beginning of cricket, and the greatest of the batsmen have always looked to score runs.
Defensive batting is not Test temperament. It is a negative approach. One cannot win Tests based on that.
Pujara, who impressed one and all in his spectacular debut in 2010, by coming in at No 3 while chasing a fourth innings target and taking the attack to the Australian bowlers, has had this curious shell constructed around his batting over the years.
While his batting average has remained high, his strike rate has plummeted. During the latter half of 2016, he did make decent efforts to up the tempo, mainly due to polite goading by the team management. But his recent rates of run-scoring has been nothing short of pathetic.
In the second Test against Sri Lanka, played at Nagpur, Pujara scored 143 in 362 balls with a strike rate of 39.50. When we look at how the innings progressed, it becomes more intriguing. Granted, he came in at the fall of an early wicket. But soon Murali Vijay and he had more than stabilised the innings, and given that Sri Lanka had scored just 205 in the first innings, there was no apparent threat facing the Indians.
He got to his 100 in 246 balls, and by the end of the day, India were 312 for 2, with Pujara on 121 and Kohli on 54. If we do follow the ‘End justifies the Means’ adage, perhaps his 284-ball vigil on the second day was justified.
But given that India did not lose any early wicket the next morning, his 78-ball crawl for 22 additional runs on the third day is really inexcusable. It is one thing to bide one’s time and wait for the bad ball. But if that has to be done against a sub-class Sri Lankan attack, and if half volleys and full pitches are not punished, it underlines a problem in the mindset or ability or both.
This is not the first time Pujara has been guilty of stonewalling. His strike rate, which had topped 50 till his 25th Test, has come steadily down and is 47.89. In the last 10 Tests, while his average is a staggering 71.20, his strike rate is a sluggish 44.89.
This is alarming.
Correlation between speed and success
Contrary to the popular belief that slow, cautious approach helps batsmen when conditions are difficult, the numbers, and subsequent analysis, clearly shows that being positive is the way to bat in places like South Africa.
Let us look at how the figures stack up after 1991, South Africa’s readmission into international cricket. Taking a 500-run cut-off, if we look at the most successful batsmen in that country India visits next, we find David Warner topping the list with the Bradmanesque average of 90.50. His strike rate stands at 86.74.
The most successful batsman happens to be Adam Gilchrist. His 523 runs at 65.37 was helped along with a strike rate of 97.39.
Chris Gayle comes next. And 545 runs at 54.50 is built at a strike rate of 84.62.
If we look at the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest average of this group belongs to Rahul Dravid. His 624 runs at 29.71 came at a mere 37.63 runs per hundred balls. He also scored over 50 only 3 times in 22 innings.
Michael Atherton is the only exception who batted slowly and managed decent returns in the land, and even that record is skewed by that single bloating knock, that legendary 185 not out.
It is not a coincidence that the faster scorers have been more successful in South Africa.
If we consider the visiting batsmen who have scored over 500 runs in South Africa, we find that the Correlation Coefficient between the Average and Strike Rate is 0.74. This is high [correlation coefficient varies between -1 and +1. High positive values indicate one parameter increasing indicates the other parameter is also increasing ] and reasonable statistical evidence that there is a strong reason to say that quicker scoring helps batsmen achieve more success in the land.
For Indians, the most successful batsmen there are Sachin Tendulkar (1161 runs at 46.44) and VVS Laxman (566 runs at 40.42).
All the successful batsmen we see, with the sole exception of Atherton, had the ability to score off the good balls and thereby keep the bowlers from getting into the groove and bowling exactly where they wanted to.
This is very, very important in a land like South Africa, where the conditions are most often very much in favour of the bowler, and the bowlers themselves are top quality. Hence, the attack is relentless. If one does not score off the good balls, they have to play the waiting game, biding time and waiting for the bad ball. And in such cases, the odds are that there will sooner or later be a ball with one’s name written on it.
Hence, we quite naturally see a positive correlation between average and strike rate in that land.
In such circumstances, slow batting is anything but a sign of ‘Test temperament’. It is almost certainly a recipe for abysmal failure.
Given this, Pujara’s increasing struggles to score quickly, even against a bowling attack as weak as the Lankan, and with his team in a position of absolute strength does not augur that well for India.
The No 3 in a champion side needs to be positive, needs to be a strokeplayer and needs to be someone who can dictate terms in the game. For all his runs in India, Pujara is far from being that sort of a batman.
One does hope that he comes to terms with the parameters of success in the rainbow nation.