His role is not only to score runs but also to bat long, weather the worst & make it easier for those who come after to cash in.
Bengaluru: As with all good fables, the tortoise crosses the line before the hare.
But, in life, the hare is so often so far ahead of the tortoise at the finish line that the hare takes the applause, the riches, the hurrahs even as the tortoise faces inevitable extinction. If it was a competition between two individuals, that would be the rule of nature, but in a team environment, it is the tortoises such as Cheteshwar Pujara who allow the hares to run like the wind.
Virat Kohli is a unique beast in that he has the hard-shell defence of the tortoise and the quicksilver feet of the hare. But this is given to few. For the life of him, Kohli can’t understand how the hares can’t defend themselves better or why the tortoises can’t crack the Yo-Yo test, because both come naturally to him.
But, just as gifts are bestowed at random, a product of genetics, history and geography, the wise know what to demand of a tortoise and what to expect of a hare.
Pujara is the quintessential tortoise. If you put a gun to his head he could not run like a Jamaican between 22 yards. If you incentivised him with crores, he will not give up on his core competence and start playing reverse-sweeps in the Indian Premier League. If you would deny yourself the option of his services, that’s your choice, but he is best suited batting to his raaga than your bhangra.
Pujara played the last of his five One-Day Internationals for India in 2014. He averaged 10.20 and scored at a strike rate of 39.23 in those outings. Rightly, for him and the Indian team, his white-ball cricket was shelved early, allowing him to focus solely on Test cricket.
A dying species
Over the years, he has proven himself a worthy No. 3, even if some believed that he was more VVS Laxman’s replacement, and ideal at No. 5, with Ajinkya Rahane the like-for-like Rahul Dravid fit at No. 3. In 60 Tests, Pujara averages 49.3 and consumes balls like they are going out of fashion. He is the old-fashioned bulwark, but exactly the kind of player whose skills are valued less and less in the modern world.
And there is reason for this too. While Pujara fills his boots in India, his overseas record is less than enviable. In three Tests in Australia, he averages 33.5; in seven Tests in South Africa he averages 31.6; in seven Tests in England he averages 23.3; in two Tests in New Zealand he averages 15.
So, there you have it, a colossus at home and yet not much beyond mediocre in overseas conditions. That’s true and it isn’t. Simply because Pujara’s role at No. 3 is not only to score runs, and it should never be his mandate to score quickly, it is also to bat as long as he can, weather the worst of the early fresh conditions and make it easier for those who come after to cash in. But that isn’t reflected in averages.
Pujara’s unbeaten 132 in the fourth Test against England Friday lasted 257 balls. That is one ball short of 43 overs. When India got hammered at Lord’s not long ago, the whole team lasted 35.2 overs in the first innings and 47 in the second. Hell, if you take Pujara’s crawl, if you can call it that, out of this innings, India would have squandered having England at 86 for 6, allowing them to get to 246, and reaching 161 for 3 before being bowled out for 273.
At some point, the hares in this Indian team must consult with the grey foxes in management and acknowledge that the tortoises are not merely here to stay, but desirable. M. Vijay has been put out to pasture, rather been sent to the knackers, and it appears that Pujara has spared himself the same outcome by getting into the eleven in this England series late and making it count.
Back in the race
Ever since the Kohli hare put Pujara on notice, counting intent more important than runs, this single-format batsman has tried to be something he is not. All season, Pujara has been in England, playing and playing without really succeeding. But he has put his head down and tried to get better in those conditions. When the India-Afghanistan Test ended prematurely after the second day, on a Friday, Pujara was on a plane to England on Saturday to resume his internship in County Cricket. How’s that for haste from a tortoise?
Pujara does not bowl, not even part-time fake spin, and is of limited value in the field. Safe pair of hands, willing to stay low under the helmet close in, but unlikely to ever effect a direct hit run out. But, in Test cricket, having one strong suit is perfectly good justification for selection even while others try to prove that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
In Test cricket, Pujara needs only to prove that he can play a valuable hand overseas, when the time comes. He has now, but then, those who select him or seek to drop him for batsmen who play brighter cricket, need to understand the value he brings to the table.
Just as daal or rajma or chhole is the hero of the meal, it’s little fun without good, clean chawal. It just isn’t a meal. The question is whether the hares that stand on the podium of life realise that they can only do so on the shoulders of tortoises.
Till then, the fable stays, even if it does not play out as true often enough.