Cape Town: If you built your model No. 3 batsman in Test cricket, you would start from a foundation of perseverance and hard work. You would add a technique that can withstand constant and piercing interrogation. You would put in a generous dose of patience and a willingness to stay out there in the middle even if things looked ugly.
Essentially, you would build Cheteshwar Pujara.
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For 95 Test matches — and this is no insignificant number — over 12 years, Pujara has done a job at No. 3. It was thought that Rahul Dravid was irreplaceable. That batting of his kind had become a thing of the past, with the advent and influence of Twenty20 cricket. But, Pujara showed that there was a place in modern cricket for someone who does not play the shortest format.
In his innings, which is a long essay rather than a haiku, Pujara made 18 centuries at an average of 43.87. Those numbers, particularly the average, would be significantly higher, had he not endured a near two-year dip that has continued to the point where a significant groundswell has risen against Pujara.
Take a closer look at the numbers. Pujara’s last century was his 193 against Australia in January 2019. Since then he has gone 27 Test matches without making it to three figures. He has threatened three times since, with 81 against South Africa at Visakhapatnam in October 2019, 77 against Australia in Sydney in January 2021 and 91 against England at Leeds in August 2021.
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But, sadly, cricket is a game that judges quality top-order batsmen by the hundreds they score, not the ones they miss closely. What has hastened Pujara’s journey from being indispensable to occupying a space that a youngster might better fill is the manner in which his defences have diminished.
Where previously Pujara may not have made the big scores, he was assured at the crease and wore out bowlers. In the recent past, he has found ways to get himself out. Earlier, his was a wicket that had to be earned. Once he saw off a few nervy balls initially, Pujara simply would not give it away. It would take a peach of a ball or a bad decision from the umpire to remove him from the middle.
This is no longer the case. Pujara is not so much a thorn in the flesh of the opposition, but a respected elder in the dressing-room who does not enjoy the confidence or adoration of the Indian cricket public at large.
It is clear that the end of Pujara’s career is near. Whether he will make it to 100 Tests or not, hangs on a thread.
But even more curious is the case of Ajinkya Rahane, Pujara’s fellow journeyman. When Rahane was relieved of the Test vice-captaincy, it was a clear signal that the selectors and the team management had begun to look at the future.
Rahane has played 82 times for India in Tests, beginning in 2013, when he already had a significant body of work behind him in first class cricket. He has nearly 5000 runs at an average of 38.52, and the number is low because his career has followed a certain pattern.
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His Test hundreds have never been ordinary. They came largely against quality attacks, in trying conditions, with India in a jam. Wellington, Lord’s, Melbourne, Delhi, Kingston, Indore, Colombo, Ranchi and again, in Melbourne, most recently, when India went from being 36 all out in Adelaide to turning things around.
The problem for Rahane has been that each of these stand-out centuries has been followed by a run of middling scores. It is not that he failed, so to speak, between big knocks, but he never stamped himself on a series.
In general, when a batsman is in good form, he makes it count. One century is followed by another, and in a long Test series, familiarity with bowlers and the conditions means cashing in when the going is good. At no stage in, at no stage in his career has Rahane been able to do this.
Between his first Test century and his second, Rahane played one match. The next came six Tests later. So far so good. But Rahane went 21 Tests without scoring a hundred from his 9th to his 10th, and, counting backwards, he now has one century in his last 21 Tests.
One day, there will be someone in the world of coaching or data analytics who can answer why this is so. And then perhaps there will be a way to help a batsman who can weather the peak of the storms but can’t cash in on the lulls in between.
For now, though, it feels like the moment of reckoning is here for Rahane.
Virat Kohli has been asked repeatedly about how India might manage the transition phase they have entered into. This is really not so much about transition but about gracefully phasing out two batsmen who have been great servants of Indian cricket, and who have been pillars on which India’s overseas dominance has been built.
Kohli insists that transitions cannot be forced and that the game will dictate when they will happen.
The game has spoken. The when is here. The hope is that the how can be managed well, when Pujara and Rahane make way, one following the other, or together.
They deserve this much.
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