Cheteshwar Pujara’s indifferent Test run continued on Day 1 of the second Test between India and England. The batsman walked in at 126/1 after Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul set the platform with a brilliant opening partnership, with a relatively flat deck on offer at Lord’s.
However, Pujara managed only nine runs before James Anderson coaxed him into playing at one outside off. The slip cordon accepted the offering gleefully as the 33-year-old registered single figures on a day all the other Indian batsmen shone. He is still without an international hundred in 30 months.
Pujara being out of form isn’t ideal for the Indian team to state the extremely obvious, but his failures could have a far-ranging impact. Here are three ways in which Cheteshwar Pujara’s struggle is bad for Indian cricket.
#3 Cheteshwar Pujara is one of the few players in the Test team who isn’t an IPL regular
Cheteshwar Pujara stands for a lot more in this Indian Test team than it seems at first glance. The Chennai Super Kings may have handed him an IPL contract after years on the sidelines, but he certainly isn’t in their first-choice plans and next year’s mega-auction is likely to see him go unsold once again.
Even India’s Test specialists who don’t play white-ball cricket, like Umesh Yadav, Ishant Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha, are experienced and involved at the IPL level. As one of the few Indian Test players who isn’t an IPL fixture, Pujara is one of the last of a dying breed.
Pujara has relied on first-class cricket to amass a pile of runs and make his way into the Indian red-ball side. In recent times, India have come under criticism for giving the IPL much more weightage than domestic cricket. And while that might not be a problem for the limited-overs formats, Test cricket is a completely different ball game.
Pujara stands for something big in the Indian side – the importance of first-class cricket and the way around the IPL. If his poor form continues, he will find himself out of the team, which will lose one of their only representatives of the same.
#2 India don’t have a backup No. 3
Speaking of players who aren’t IPL regulars, Hanuma Vihari is the only player in the current squad without a contract in the cash-rich league (Abhimanyu Easwaran was later added to the main squad, but he and Arzan Nagwaswalla were named as standbys.)
Vihari is probably the closest replacement for Cheteshwar Pujara India can find. Apart from Vihari, who has mostly batted lower down the order in Test cricket, India can call upon the likes of Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill. Both batsmen have been used as openers in Tests, and moving them from their preferred spots might not be easy.
KL Rahul seems to have sealed an opening slot, so his days of being a middle-order backup are all but over. Virat Kohli might be reluctant to move up to No. 3, having played most of his Test career one place lower.
Since India don’t have a ready replacement for Pujara, they might have to stick with them even when he’s in a tough run of form. Apart from the implications that has on the team’s famous bench strength, it would also mean that he isn’t working as hard for his place as he should be.
#1 Pujara’s poor run of form amplifies the pressure on Kohli and Rahane
Cheteshwar Pujara isn’t the only player who has found runs tough to come by over the last couple of years. Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, who follow him in the Test batting order, are also far from their best. All three batsmen have averaged in the mid-twenties since the start of 2020, putting immense pressure on the rest of the lineup to perform.
Pujara’s struggle only enhances the pressure on Kohli and Rahane, who have enough on their plate to deal with. The No. 3 has always been a reliable player who wears down the attack and makes things easy for his teammates, but the exact opposite seems to be happening in most games right now.
Pujara finding form would help Kohli and Rahane express themselves a little more, thereby uplifting the whole team.