Cheteshwar Pujara was supposed to be one of the world’s best batsman in Test cricket. At least, there were expectations.
There was belief.
Many regarded him as India’s top entity in the longest format.
Eight years have gone by since Pujara debuted, but the hard-working character hasn’t quite found it going as far overseas conditions are concerned.
He is a king at home and is a menace for oppositions. Most of his career runs have come in the sub-continent.
For a batsman that still averages 50+ in Tests, he has only managed a combined 834 career runs in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand at an average of just 27.09.
As India is all set to play a 5-match Test series against England, Pujara goes into the match at Birmingham having disappointed with the bat all through 2018. In South Africa, he struggled massively and then in the County stint he managed to average only 14.33.
In the recently concluded warm-up game against Essex, a twin failure greeted him. The swing in England has come to haunt him again, much like the scenario in 2014.
It’s no doubt that Pujara will be a pivotal member of this Indian side in England, but given his struggles, will the management demote him down the order? This question arises because of the issues he has against swing. Who can come up then?
Let’s have a look at the possible scenarios for the Lord’s Test.
Pujara facing ghosts of 2014 – Technique
In 10 innings in 2014, Pujara managed 222 runs with a best of 55. He averaged 22.20 that included one duck. When one looks back at the manner in which he performed, it was an obvious problem against the moving ball.
He looked out of control against deliveries that had moved off the seam and those that did a bit in the air. He was caught fending.
Digging deep, Pujara’s footwork never allowed him to cover the stumps and other time the incoming delivery cracked the stumps.
Coming at a pivotal position at number 3, Pujara needs solid technique and the strength to hang on. The legendary Rahul Dravid was instrumental for India in that position. Pujara still now hasn’t quite filled into the shoes of his predecessor.
The technique here then highlights his diagonal back-lift, that often added to the issues. And going back to the moving ball that shaped away, he often poked the balls into the slip cordon.
Come 2018, England will believe they can ruffle his feathers once again.
Problems for Pujara this year
Against South Africa earlier in January, the top order batsman got out against Vernon Philander in the first innings of the first Test in a similar manner mentioned above. A length ball that seamed enough made Pujara chase a wide one to knick the ball to 2nd slip. He then got done trying to defend an in-swinging ball.
The rest of the series then set in a similar fashion that included two run-outs. For Yorkshire in the County cricket, he failed to come good in 12 innings. That’s quite a number.
Going into Birmingham, Pujara is under tremendous pressure. Against Essex, he once again failed to cover the line and edged a length ball to the keeper.
In the 2nd innings, the fielding side brought in a short midwicket and tempted the Indian star with an over-pitched delivery. One would have expected that Pujara would play it gently down the ground, but he flicked Paul Walter into the hands of that same fielder at short midwicket.
A lot of talks have taken place regarding Pujara’s defence and also some questioning his positioning at number 3.
Should Pujara continue at number 3?
Given his struggles in recent times, Pujara looks like a player short of confidence.
Against James Anderson and Stuart Broad against the red ball, it won’t be any easy to grind in stand tall
If India loses any of their openers early, Pujara will be exposed early on against the red swinging ball. 14 innings in England this season has seen him score just 196 runs. This may tempt the Indian management to demote Pujara in the batting line-up to save him from the new cherry.
He could come in at number 5 after Kohli. Perhaps by then, the ball could get older with the in-form players spending some valuable time at the crease.
By no means, Pujara deserves to be dropped. He is still a valuable asset to the side. His strengths are known to all the Test cricket fans.
Pujara is often the glue that this young team needs. Against South Africa, he scored a 50 off 178 deliveries in January which brings his calibre into play.
Who should replace him at number 3?
With skipper Virat Kohli coming in at number 4, the choice could be between Ajinkya Rahane and Dinesh Karthik. And going by form, Karthik may be asked to do the tough job for the side.
As they often say play your best batters high up the order, DK could be one of the answers. He scored an affirmative 82 against Essex. However, Rahane, having the experience of batting in the top-order could use this opportunity to make the no. 3 slot his own.
DK had success the last time he played in the UK back in 2007. Back then, he opened the innings. He looks as the best and only best in this crucial position to play to his strengths and add runs.
If KL is selected in the side in place of Rahane or Pujara, then he comes in as a priority at number 3. However, if Rahul is selected ahead of Shikhar Dhawan, then he would open the innings.
These permutations and combinations make this series even more exciting.
A lot remains to be seen.