CHENNAI: The last ball of his Australia tour will keep haunting Cheteshwar Pujara. He was displaced of his one-drop slot. He was batting for survival. He was batting for redemption. And then comes this.
Like a clinical sniper busting the enemy’s last bunker, Mitchell Johnson slung in a missile of a delivery to detonate his off-stump. Pujara stood flabbergasted. He thought he had covered the ball’s line. The natural angle from around the stumps and wide off the crease would have taken the ball into his middle stump. But upon landing, it took a wicked deviation—37cm—past his bat. A deviation more associated with spinners. Or Wasim Akram.
Pujara plodded back to the pavilion like a wind-beaten voyager out of food for months. His mind might have been blank. Or like a kaleidoscope, every dismissal in this series would have flashed though his mind.
However, one more shot at redemption he could have wished for. On a blazing Sydney Cricket Ground, a strip that has been the kindest to sub-continental batsmen, Pujara might have overturned the scale of misfortune.
That was not to be. Given his meagre returns since the South Africa series—483 runs in 10 Tests--that was imminent. He who was earmarked to lay solid foundations abroad—and that was almost taken for granted—eked out less-than-ordinary averages of 33.50, 22.50 and 15.00 in Australia, England and New Zealand, respectively.
Not that dropping him for the Sydney Test was purely illogical, but should the set of tacticians, who trusted Virat Kohli’s miserable drought in England (average of 13.40), have shown the same faith in Pujara’s determination?
Former Test opener Aakash Chopra, certainly feels they should have. “Dropping him is understandable, but I would have personally persisted with him. Yes, he has to work on a few technical aspects, but he has been spending a lot of time in the middle and getting starts. Then, he had an unlucky dismissal in the first innings in Adelaide, then a bad umpiring decision in Brisbane (first innings) and then a great ball in Melbourne (second innings). So I think he should have been given a longer rope, at least should have been playing in Sydney, the best batting track on offer,” he observed.
Suddenly a batsman whose technique was deemed impermeable looks horribly porous. If lateral movement had troubled him in England and New Zealand, it’s the bounce that undid him in Australia. “I had a feeling that he would struggle in Australia. Such a bottom-handed player is bound to have trouble riding the bounce. In England, he was getting out to incoming deliveries, and he was making a conscious effort to cover the gap. So he was a bit uncertain outside the off-stump,” he pointed out.
But studious as Pujara had been, he wouldn’t be whining over the decision. “He is a very determined cricketer. Probably, this break will help him reflect on his game and comeback with a refreshed mindset and improved technique,” he said. That Johnson special, though, will be emblematic of his rough times.