Just how good has Cheteshwar Pujara been this season for Sussex? In the Royal London One-Day Cup so far, the Indian batter has smashed 614 runs in eight innings at an average of 102.33 to be the second highest run-scorer in the tournament so far. Three centuries and two half-centuries have come out of his bat.
Pujara also showcased his form in the longest format as well in the County Championship Division two. In 13 innings across eight games in the championship, he has scored 1,094 runs at an average of 109.40. His best individual score is 231, with five hundred-plus scores in the championship. He also sits at the second spot in batting charts in the longer format too.
The sheer volume of runs will make Sussex very happy with their decision to sign Pujara.
“His runs speak for themselves. You get some overseas pros, they come down and they just want the money but he’s been the opposite,” says Sussex’s batting coach Grant Flower, the former Zimbabwe batter who played 67 Test and 221 ODIs. “I can’t say enough, he has dug us out of so many difficult situations, both in the four-day stuff and currently the one-day stuff, he has got centuries in both the formats and forged some really good partnerships with our guys at the crease. We got a big semi-final on Tuesday against Lancashire, hopefully, he can come through that one as well,” adds the former Zimbabwe cricketer.
The Saurashtra batter’s appetite for big runs is no surprise. He has been the glue for the India batting for over a decade now, during a 96-Test career. But it is the manner of his run-making this English summer that has caught the attention of all watchers. In the one-day games, he has been scoring at a strike rate of 116.28. His best score of 174, against Surrey, came off a mere 131 balls. It is also the highest score by a Sussex player in List A cricket. Last week, he got a 90-ball 132.
Even in first-class cricket, we are seeing a very different side of Pujara where he has got runs at a strike rate of 60.11. Known for his safe and cautious approach to batting, he is a changed player now, one who seems to be having fun.
He never seemed to be able to do that earlier. Even when he attacked it seemed forced. What has helped him free up?
The shift in gears is a result of more strokes and a fearless approach, Pujara himself told his fans during an interaction on Twitter last week.
“I am more fearless in my approach and added a few more shots in my game,” Pujara said when asked about the change in his batting which has led to his scoring runs at a brisk pace.
There’s an obvious change in mindset of a batter known for his dour and defensive approach. Like all attacking players, he has displayed the ability to convert the good balls into bad balls.
Flower said his discussion with his skipper has been more technical, the change in approach has come from Pujara himself. “Mine has been more about a few technical things, it (mindset) is more coming from him, especially in the white ball format. He is hitting more balls on the up which is what you get at the international level, because you have to try and create bad balls in the white ball format. Also experimenting a bit on the bowling machine, one day he has gone and asked me to do certain stuff, hitting over midwicket, hitting over extra cover and he has been very precise in what he is wanting. Hitting balls on the up, from what I can see he is taking his game to a new level.”
The decision to play in County cricket has been the best thing to have happened to the doughty batter. Having been sidelined by the India selectors after the South Africa series at the start of the year, there was no platform in India to make a case for a comeback as he didn’t have an IPL contract.
For Pujara’s father and coach, Arvind, the main benefit they got of opting to go for county cricket was the platform to play cricket as there was no competitive cricket available in India. The Covid-19 pandemic had curtailed the first-class season in India. “When you get a chance only then you can correct your mistakes and prove yourself. Without sitting in an exam how will you come to know your shortcomings?” says Pujara Sr.
He attributes his son’s terrific run to the confidence gained through run-making. “Basic thing is: if you get runs then you gain in confidence or from where will you get the runs? To get runs you need confidence,” the former Saurashtra Ranji player says.
After his strong showing in the Division 2 of County cricket, the selectors were forced to name Pujara in the squad for the one-off fifth Test match against England in July. On resumption of his Sussex stint, he has continued his resurgence to add another gear to his batting. Flower says Pujara has taken his game to the next level. He attributes it to being able to experiment due to the opportunity to play a lot of games.
“It’s been great for him to experiment and that’s what a lot of people come over and do in County cricket. There are so many matches that even though you are a professional and there is pressure but if you are good enough and if you have good enough game to experiment you can evolve your game in that way.”
“In both formats, he still puts a high price on his wicket but he looks to be more attacking. You could see when he was batting for India (during his innings of 66 in the second innings of the fifth Test at Edgbaston in July) against a very good England bowling attack, I think he was looking to dominate more, keeping out the good ball. But when there was a bad ball there (he was) putting it away, probably his intent to score hasn’t been as much as it is now, I think that has been one of the bigger differences.”
And, how does Flower see him doing on return to international cricket? Will the bowlers see a different version of Pujara?
“Obviously the international level is much higher, but you will see a more assured guy, technically and tactically. I think, you will see a very confident and positive Pujara. I am hopeful the results will be there to see.”
In his new avatar, Pujara has been hitting the spinners down the ground, sweeping them while going straight down the ground against seamers, coming down and hitting over extra cover and midwicket. When he returns to international cricket, there won’t be any surprises if Pujara gives the same treatment to the Test bowlers.