India vs Australia 2017

India will never love Cheteshwar Pujara the way it loves Virat Kohli but that doesn't matter

There is talk that perhaps Test specialists should be paid more but at the end of the day, money never quite equals respect.

It didn’t take long for the worms to come out of the woodwork. Once the result of the Ranchi Test was no longer in doubt, the comments started to flow. They all, roughly, said the same thing.

“Maybe Pujara could have played faster.”

The purists put their hands up in exasperation. They argued, they made their point, and just when they thought they had managed to explain why Pujara’s innings was essential for India, another comment would pop up.

“If only Pujara could have batted like Jadeja.”

By now, the purists were angry. This man had batted out of his skin to save India, he had played the longest recorded innings by an Indian in Test cricket and all people could talk about was a 55-ball 54. Then, came a low blow.

“Pujara is the most boring batsman of all time.”

Maybe it was just a troll having some fun. But all hell broke loose.

They call Test cricket the toughest format, but could Jadeja have saved the match for India with that knock? You needed a Pujara to do that, just as you once needed VVS Laxman.

For the last six years of his Test career, Laxman played just Test cricket. His one-day career never got going, but he at least had a career (85 ODIs). And he had those wrists… those magical wrists that would remind us of Azhar and Hyderabadi biryani.

Pujara has made no bones about wanting to play as much cricket as possible. He wants to play ODIs, he wants to play Tests, and he has that ambition. Indeed, just as every cricketer should. But for most part, it looks like his role in Indian cricket’s story has been pre-determined. He is already 29 and the other formats have stonewalled him out of the reckoning.

Being a one-format player is tough. Tough because people tend to forget you, tough because people don’t watch Test cricket as much as ODIs or T20s, tough because you are away from the team setup… training on your own. It is a solitary pursuit – not one of Pujara’s making but one that has been thrust upon him.

‘I feel really bad for him...’

So when Virat Kohli spoke about Pujara in the post-match conference after the Ranchi Test, he could have very well been speaking the Saurashtra batsman’s mind.

“Sometimes I feel really bad for him… that people don’t understand his importance in the team for us,” said a very serious Kohli. “He is very valuable for us. He is the most composed player we have in the team. He is willing to grind for us. He likes the challenge of batting for long periods. So someone like that is priceless to have in the team.”

“When the pressure situation comes, he always wants to put his hand up and play long for the team and hold up one end, which is think is a great quality in him,” Kohli added. “This season he has been outstanding. I don’t know the number of runs, he has scored but he has contributed throughout. He has not been spoken about or been in the focus too much but I think he deserves much more than that. People need to stand up and take notice of what he has done this season.”

But now the purists sat up and decided to take Kohli and the haters on. It’s one thing to say that he is very valuable and quite another to follow through on the statement.

“So why did Kohli drop him in St Lucia earlier this year?”

In August 2016, Pujara was dropped as the team management opted for Rohit Sharma for the Test against the West Indies. It would have made sense if the Mumbai batsman had been in great form and Pujara had been down in the dumps. But neither statement was true.

Kohli had dropped a hint then: “Rohit Sharma can change sessions in a Test match. Taking nothing away from Pujara; he has been solid. Everybody needs to get chances.”

Right. So what was that whole “I feel really bad for Pujara” bit about? It seemed like Kohli wanted him to be more aggressive but now, he sure must be glad that Pujara didn’t take him up on his offer.

Cut from a different cloth

Pujara’s game belongs to a different era – he places value on spending time in the middle (some read that as boring) but that doesn’t mean he can’t play shots. Kohli’s strike-rate in Tests in 55, Ajinkya Rahane comes in at 52 and Pujara weighs in at 48. Essentially, per 100 balls… Kohli would score 55 runs and Pujara would get 48. Is that really that big a difference?

Pujara was magnificent at Ranchi. Credit: Prashant Bhoot / BCCI/ SPORTZPICS
Pujara was magnificent at Ranchi. Credit: Prashant Bhoot / BCCI/ SPORTZPICS

But perhaps the lack of flair blinds us. The reputation does him no favours either. Kohli is the world’s best batsman in shorter formats. Pujara doesn’t get picked for either.

So, of course, Pujara is slower. Slower in T20 speak also translates to inferior. Cricket has conditioned its fans into believing that fours and sixes are better than front foot defence, that entertainment means noise and not studied silence, that your first response to a ball should be an attacking shot, that the ball is inferior to the bat just as the defensive batsman is to an attacking one. And that doesn’t quite bode well for the right-hander in the popularity stakes. The bias is clear as daylight.

For most part, Laxman didn’t need to contend with T20. Not in the way that Pujara has to. And perhaps that is also why fame won’t court Pujara in quite the same way.

But if he’ll keep at it long enough, the love will shine through. Pujara is now the only Indian batsman with an average over 50 and that means something – Virat Kohli dropped to 49 as his lean run against Australia continued. That counts for something. It should.

There is talk that perhaps Test specialists should be paid more and a proposal has reportedly been submitted to the COA as well. But money never quite equals respect.

The slow grind

For Pujara, earning the affection of the public like VVS will also play out like a Test match. It’ll be a slow grind, he’ll have to defend resolutely, he’ll have to resist temptation, and he’ll have to stick to his guns. It could also take a record number of balls. And then strike when the opportunity presents itself. That’d be a win.

During the man-of-the-match award ceremony, Pujara was asked how he stops himself from going for the big shot, his answer was crisp: “I do get tempted [to hit over the top] but you have to see the bigger picture.”

And indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about… the bigger picture. Let’s hope the cricket fans see it too… sooner rather than later.

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