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For the love of Pujara dancing down the track…

I would love to watch a YouTube compilation of all deliveries Pujara played off Lyon in the second innings at Adelaide. It was a mini masterclass. On a wicket offering assistance to a terrific spinner with a rough patch right on the money to a right hander, it needed a special innings to nullify the threat of Lyon. And the best player of spin in the team rose to the occasion. As is his wont, he repeatedly danced down the track as if it was merely an extension of his defence. He was so sure of his footwork, his off stump, and his judgement of the dip, spin and bounce that he even used the pads liberally after coming down the pitch – a rarity in the post-DRS era.

Lost in the glory of KP’s genius in the Bombay ’12 Test was not only a priceless Cook century, but perhaps the best innings of that match – Pujara’s masterful first-innings hundred against Swann and Panesar at their best on a Wankhede pitch with so much turn and grip on the first day that if Michael Clarke bowled there again he could have taken another fifer. It is not just that Pujara negated Swann and Panesar, but he did it with such control and authority when more illustrious names around him struggled to get going. My lasting memory of that innings will be how often he danced down the pitch to Swann and Panesar, and with such ease and poise. And he rarely hit the ball in the air against spinners even on the occasions when he attacked. Mostly he came down to defend. That is the hallmark of his batting against spinners – negating the spin is not a strategy as much as it is a natural response. 

A genius like Lara had every shot in his repertoire to dominate spinners but sparkling footwork was the foundation of it all. Laxman had magical hands and used the depth of the crease to capitalize on anything marginally full or short. Pujara may not have the same range of strokes, but his footwork against spinners is nearly as good as Lara’s and he uses the depth of the crease nearly as well as Laxman used to. 

I was hoping the presence of Mark Waugh – another terrific player of spin – on commentary would be exciting for the viewers. I assumed he would offer insights into Pujara’s approach and technique against spinners. But he was happy to tell us every team needs a player like Pujara for he may not be the most talented batsman around but he is solid and gritty and some such. Why dig deeper when stereotypes are floating all around you to pick from, eh?

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“Pujara is the new Dravid” was one of those irritating stereotypes that lazy cricket writers came up with. Perhaps it was too much of an effort to explain Pujara’s batting on its own merit. Now with a twin special in Adelaide earning India a precious away Test win, that tag isn’t going to die anytime soon. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, the ideological Brahminism of the post-IPL cricketing landscape makes it much harder to appreciate Pujara for he is largely celebrated for what he represents rather than the cricketing skills he brings forthChampions of Pujara remind me of the immensely proud filter coffee aficionados. It’s about them and their place in the social ladder and not about the coffee at all.

A corporate governance problem (shared ownership of two different formats using common resources – cricketers and calendar) is spun as a tradition vs market choice dilemma by the snake oil free-market merchants. The so-called purists happily lap up this cunning framing by telling us how Test cricket is holy, pure, romantic, and (this is my favourite) the true test of character. Standing at Dadar Station during peak hour would be better theater for watching human beings survive the true tests of character. 

Yes, he is not picked in the IPL and makes disproportionately less money than his peers. He is not the prototype of a modern cricket athlete. Despite a terrific List A record, he is never considered for ODIs. All these are true and perhaps the last point is unfortunate. But none of this makes him an underdog in Test cricket. 

Among this generation of Indian batsmen, Pujara had the swiftest path to Test cricket. Kohli, Rohit, Rahane and Pujara belong to that generation of first-class cricketers for whom the benchmarks for getting a national call were perhaps the highest it has ever been in Indian cricket given the presence of Fab4 (Sehwag and not Ganguly). Forget knocking on the door, they had to rip apart the ceiling and break open all the walls to get a Test call. Pujara enjoyed the headstart over the cream of the Ranji stars of his generation. 

He is also celebrated as this rare Test batsman who still swears by the old-fashioned virtues of innings building. That is false on so many levels. The foremost being the presumption that his approach is the prototype of batting in Tests. Second, even in this generation, he is not a rarity. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Kraigg Braithwaite and Faf du plessis score at a similar clip or slower. But those pesky first-world minnows spoiling the narrative, I tell ya.

Kohli dropping him on the grounds of “initiative” in 2015 is perhaps the only case of him being a victim. But then Kohli played Karn Sharma ahead of Ashwin in the ’14 Adelaide Test. 

For the love of Pujara dancing down the track, I long to read a profile of him which sings an emphatic song rather than tell us he is so unsung because of *fill up 800 words of reflexive lazy tropes*.

Mahesh

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