In Australia, Pujara took more blows on his body than the numbers of boundaries he managed to hit. Against the English in Indian conditions, he kept getting out to Leach. At Southampton in the WTC final, Pujara just hung around, content to hold the bat and give the impression that he was there. There were only two scoring shots in 54 balls in the first innings against the Kiwis. Rest of the time, the ‘Wall with a huge bat-pad gap’ did not exhibit any intent to score runs. After this painful existence, he was predictably caught out leg before to Boult on one that came in. His ordeal in the second innings was worse. Sun was out, batting was supposed to be easy. India had to play first for safety. Perhaps Kohli could not assess the situation properly, and threw his wicket away while fishing outside the off stump. Pujara, who did not even pretend to be scoring runs, should have at least dropped the anchor. But disappointingly, he holed out to the first slip after scoring a paltry 15 runs off 80 balls.
That the Indian number 3 is not in the groove is not quite news.
What ails him so badly is the relevant question?
Unlike before, Pujara now heavily leans into his stance, and commits primarily to front foot. This has taken out his flicks off the legs, cuts and back foot punches that earlier used to fetch a lot of his runs. His leaning into the stance has also opened a wide bat-pad gap, which makes him vulnerable to anything coming in sharply.
Pujara has not scored a hundred after his 193 versus Australia, at Adelaide, in January 2019. That makes the current dry spell a 30 months long drought. During this period, he has played 18 tests, scored 9 fifties and scored 841 runs at an average of 28. In 2020-21, he has scored 527 runs in 11 tests and 20 innings, at an average of 26.3, and strikes rates of 28 and 31 respectively in these two years. He is just not showing enough intent to take the game forward, rather seems content to occupy one end and plod on till he gets a fifty or so. This builds pressure on the other end as well, brings demons out of the pitch and helps the cause of bowlers.
Pujara did bear a lot of pain, and played heroically against the Ozzies in 2020-21. His 50(176) and 77(205) did help us draw the third test at Sydney, and 56 off 211 in the second innings at Gabba sapped the bowlers dry. Yet it was not him who delivered the knock-out punch at Brisbane, but Pant did. A world class team expects its number 3, who is now a 86-tests veteran, to do a lot more than just wear out the opposition and play for time. Hundreds do matter in this sport. The pressure created by runs in undeniable. That runs solve most problems is a logical corollary.
The skipper, Virat Kohli, has played 8 test matches in 2020-21. In 14 innings, he has managed to hit 3 fifties and has added 345 runs at a measly average of 24.5. Barring his 74 at Adelaide and 62 in the second innings of second Chennai test versus the Poms, he has hardly looked in control. Virat put in the hard work, and managed to remain unbeaten at 44 on Day 2 of the WTC final. Under overcast conditions and frequent rain breaks, these were priceless 44 runs. But the next morning he departed without adding anything to his overnight total. In the second innings, he poked a Jamieson delivery outside off to tamely depart at 13. These lame dismissals, against run-of-play have become fairly common occurances in the last couple of years. His last test ton came in November 2019 versus the Bangladesh. In fact 15 test innings and 15 ODI innings have passed by in 2020-21, and Kohli has not reached the three figures even once.
What this means is that Indian Number 3 and 4 have not gotten past 100 on even a single occasion in 2020 and 2021 in 11 Tests played under the WTC. If one adds the struggles of Ajinkya Rahane, the Indian Number 5, to this underwhelming batting display, one realizes with horror that none of the 3-4-5 have gotten past 100 in 7 tests in 2020, and only once (Rahane’s glorious hundred at MCG in December 2020) in 11 tests in 2020-21. In these 11 tests, Jinks has scored a 100 and a fifty, and has totaled 535 runs at a pathetic average of 28.
tests inn runs 100s 50s avg SR
At Southampton, Rahane batted with a lot of promise, but could not keep one down and holed out to square leg fielder at 49. He looked in good nick in the second innings as well, and being the senior-most batsman left after the departure of Pujara and Kohli, should have applied himself to the task of rebuilding the tattered innings. Alas, he was cramped for space on the leg side by Boult and was caught behind. Such easy dismissals have become the hallmarks of Rahane’s career. They serve a strong case against him being nominated as the Test Captain.
Even the Number 2, Shubhman Gill, has not been able to get big runs. After 8 tests and 15 innings, he has scored 414 runs at an average of 31, with his highest being 91 at Gabba. He has crossed fifty three times.
It is the lack of BIG runs from Number 2-3-4-5 that have set the team back, creating huge pressure on the bowling unit. It worked on dust bowls in India, but we were badly exposed in Southampton. Even in the two tests that India lost to New Zealand in February 2020, our 3-4-5 had failed to fire. While the trio of Pujara-VK-Jinks managed 11-2-46 and 11-19-29 runs at Wellington, the equation read 54-3-7 and 24-19-9 at Christchurch. Thus the Big 3 scored 234 runs in four innings of two tests at an average of less than 20.
After the defeat, Virat Kohli has said that batsmen need to put more pressure on the opposition bowlers to disturb their rhythm, and take the game forward. Perhaps, this is an ultimatum to Pujara. But his approach of trying to dominate has not quite worked either. Indian middle order has failed to commit to one or the other strategy, and some chopping or changing of batting orders might deliver some positive results. Rest assured, though, that whatever good might happen in future, would happen by stroke of luck, but would be credited to King Kohli by his loyal coach, Ravi Shastri. That’s how deep the rot is.
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