It has been over five years since the chatter about Cheteshwar Pujara’s strike rate started. Skipper Virat Kohli’s assessment of India’s successful tour of the West Indies and the 197-run win over New Zealand at the Green Park Stadium had one common theme: Pujara’s ordinary strike rate. Gradually, ‘intent’ became Indian skipper’s buzzword, and as his short-lived partnership with Anil Kumble paved way for Ravi Shastri as the head coach, the premium on positive cricket became more pronounced.
Pujara had a breakout series in Australia in 2018-19 where his tally of 521 runs, scored at an average of 74.42, was instrumental in India securing their first series win there. However, the debate over his strike rate never really subsided.
While in the 2018-19 series Down Under, Pujara scored at a strike rate of 41.41, his 271 runs in the memorable 2019-20 Test series were scored at a rate of 29.20. Back then, he had defended his approach by calling strike rate “overrated”.
As India embark on a fresh home series in the new World Test Championship cycle, Pujara’s ‘intent’, not for the first time in his career, is likely to be watched closely.
Addressing a virtual press conference on Tuesday, the designated vice-captain brushed aside concerns over the pestering issue. “It is more about the adjustment of mindset than anything else. I feel it is important to take the game forward, and the team wants it too,” he said.
The chorus against Pujara’s slow scoring grew once again during the Lord’s Test this year where his 206-ball 45 in the second innings came at a strike rate of 21.84 — the lowest among Indian batters who faced more than 30 balls. He did some course correction the two Tests that followed, scoring a 189-ball 91 in Leeds (SR 48.14) and a 127-ball 61 at The Oval (SR 48.03).
Pujara said he would like to continue his “fearless” approach. “I was a lot more fearless in England. There was not great change in technique. The preparations have been good and I would like to carry the same fearless mindset in this series,” he said.
Strike rate is not Pujara’s sole concern. A prolonged lean patch has ensured the No. 3 batter remains under the scanner. Pujara’s last Test ton came in January 2019, a 193-run marathon against Australia in Sydney. His last 10 innings have yielded only two 50-plus scores, both of which came in back-to-back Tests in England this year. Of the 20 times he has walked out to bat in 2021, Pujara has managed to score a half-century only six times. His seven single-digit scores aside, what is also worrying is his recent inability to convert the starts, something that used to be the standout feature of his batting a few seasons back.
The 33-year-old, however, is not reading too much into the century drought. “I don’t think it is a major cause for concern,” he said. “I have been batting well and scoring 40s and 50s. A ton will arrive when it has to, but what is more important is I am spending time in the middle.”
With Kohli and T20I skipper Rohit Sharma sitting out of the Kanpur Test, young Shubman Gill looks primed to return to the side. Gill made an assured Test debut in Australia in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne last year and laid the foundation of India’s historic series win in Brisbane with a classy 91.
Pujara, a veteran of 90 Tests, backed the 22-year-old who is returning from a shin injury that kept him out of the away series against England earlier this year. “Shubman Gill doesn’t need to worry too much. He has been playing good cricket since his international debut. Unfortunately, he missed out on the England tour but I am sure he will come good here.”
With KL Rahul out due to a muscle strain on his left thigh and Surya Kumar Yadav drafted into the squad, Gill and Mayank Agarwal are likely to open. Pujara gave nothing away on the batting order though. “I can’t reveal which position he (Gill) will bat in if he plays. He is a quality batsman and should do well wherever he plays,” he said.
The first of the two Tests against New Zealand begins on Thursday, November 25.