Why Cheteshwar Pujara Has Struggled in Tests Recently and What Can He Do to Revive His Stalling Test Career?

Cheteshwar Pujara is among those highly dedicated people who we come across quite often in our daily lives and whose focus on their jobs is so much that they make you wonder whether they have a life outside their professions. Even six years after his promising Test debut against Australia in October 2010, Pujara’s personality does not seem to have changed: he still appears very focussed, seems to be thinking about his game 24×7 and does not really smile much. Even when he salutes his teammates’ applauds after scoring a half-century or a ton, his feeling is more of a satisfaction than one of joy or happiness. Pujara, in my opinion, does not quite enjoy the game and often puts himself under unnecessary pressure—and thus struggles to bring the best out of himself.

2014, 2015 and 2016 have been barren years in Pujara’s career as an international cricketer and during which the Saurashtra batsman has accrued just 892 runs in 18 Tests, at an average of 30.75. Lest we forget that his tally of 892 Test runs since the start of 2014, includes one of Cheteshwar Pujara’s vintage knocks till date, his 145* coming against Srilanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC), where he was asked to open the batting on a really green, seaming pitch and with India in the hunt for their first Test series victory in Srilanka since 1993. Pujara’s seventh Test century (145*) came out of the blue, really, as he had been dropped from India’s playing XI for the previous three Tests in 2015, two against Srilanka and one against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), and Pujara had not really been in good form either.

That gritty knock against Srilanka was expected to spark Pujara’s revival as a Test cricketer, but, unfortunately, Pujara has made just a solitary half-century (77 v South Africa) in the nine innings since. Pujara will be particularly disappointed by his poor showings in the West Indies, where, against an average West Indian bowling attack, he mustered just 16 and 46, even though he had just two outings with the bat in Antigua and Jamaica and those performances led to him being dropped for the St Lucia Test. He was restored to India’s playing XI for the Trinidad Test, but only 22 overs of play was possible over five days and Pujara’s hopes of playing another statement knock were dashed. As things stand, Pujara’s place in the Indian Test side remains uncertain, though the 28-year-old right-hander will probably get opportunities to redeem himself, with the long home season ahead, featuring 13 Tests against New Zealand (three), England (five), Australia (four), and Bangladesh (one).

I expect Pujara to be picked in the Indian squad for the three-Test series against New Zealand, beginning on the 22nd of September in Kanpur, but the more significant question is: How can Cheteshwar Pujara resurrect his Test career that has stalled at an alarming rate, presuming he is picked to play in home conditions and on spinning tracks, against the teams aforementioned?

Cheteshwar Pujara’s Problems

As a No. 3 batsman, Pujara has to address the technical flaws in his game and sort them out as soon as possible. He has always been a solid Test batsman, but technically, Pujara is not the batsman a young cricketer with ambitions of playing a higher level of cricket, would want to look at and learn from.

The Saurashtra batsman has always had the tendency to play away from his body and leave a yawning gap between his bat and front pad.

And, his technical flaws have what impeded Pujara from regaining his form of 2012 and 2013—two hugely productive years in Pujara’s six-year Test career, as he accrued 1483 runs and scored six centuries in 14 Tests, at an average of 78.05—and we can even go to the extent of saying that, they have thrown Cheteshwar Pujara’s Test career into disarray.

The Saurashtra batsman has always had the tendency to play away from his body and leave a yawning gap between his bat and front pad—justified by this article’s image—and this technique of his was what, largely, saw him struggle, in English conditions during India’s tour of England 2014, as he scored just 202 runs in 10 innings. Pujara was troubled by both incoming and outgoing deliveries, as James Anderson and Stuart Broad gave India’s No. 3 a torrid time with their abilities to move the ball both ways. The balls which came in, sneaked through the ‘gate’ and the balls that left the right-hander or were dug in short, took the outside edge of Pujara’s bat, more often than not, and found the fielders in the slip cordon while the wicket-keeper was also kept busy by Pujara’s vulnerability against the moving ball.

More than two years since that disappointing tour of England and Cheteshwar Pujara still has the same technical problems and his judgement has also been found wanting, vindicated by Pujara getting out bowled and LBW more often than any top-order batsman would like. In his last 10 Test innings, the 28-year-old right-hander has been bowled on four occasions and given out leg-before on two occasions. He has played inside the line of deliveries a couple of times as well and seen balls which have swung and spun away, clip his off-stump—providing an indication of Pujara’s erroneous judgement and lack of footwork to cover for swing and spin.

So, if Pujara is keen on reviving his Test career, his main focus has to be to get back to basics and become technically sound and probably react a bit quicker, as well. Because if a batsman is getting out bowled and LBW too often, his reaction may be at fault just as much as his judgement and of course, bad batting habits.

Secondly and equally as important as the first, Pujara has to prioritise scoring runs, even though as a No. 3 he will, on many days, have to face the new ball and blunt the venom carried by the red kookaburra or SG Test ball. Scoring runs has to be as much of a priority for Pujara as defending and preserving his wicket are. And the two reasons why Cheteshwar Pujara simply has to evolve into a Test batsman who scores at a good clip, are: Virat Kohli, India’s Test captain, wants to win Test matches and in which case the Indian batsmen have to be a little more aggressive than they usually would in Tests and Pujara, on his own, can feel good about himself in the middle if his individual score keeps soaring.

Rather, if he keeps defending and does not accrue runs at an acceptable strike-rate, Pujara will invite pressure onto himself and also deprive his innings and the Indian innings of the necessary momentum. Pujara’s current situation is such that he needs to score runs to not only regain his lost confidence but also put himself above Rohit Sharma in the pecking order once again.

So, if I was Pujara, I would look to play more freely than I have tended to over the course of my Test career so far and also look to harness every possible opportunity to score runs. Again, if Pujara wants to score quickly, he has to react quicker and judge the line and length of a delivery that split second earlier. The reason I am saying Pujara needs to score quickly is because he cannot continue scoring his runs at strike-rates such as 23.88 and 28.93—which were Pujara’s strike-rates in the Antigua and Jamaica Tests against the West Indies—and hope to become a regular in this Indian Test side, led by Kohli and coached by Anil Kumble.

Summary
Above mentioned are the problems Pujara is currently facing as a Test batsman and which he needs to overcome in order to revive his floundering Test career. Like with most batsmen, Pujara needs a couple of good innings, in which he either scores at a good clip or does not look out of place while he is in the middle, to get his confidence back. But, rectifying his flawed batting technique and acquiring the wherewithal to score runs at a good clip, even as a No. 3 batsman, have to be among Pujara’s priorities, for he cannot continue with his technique that has seen him struggle for three years continuously and expect a sudden change in fortune.