It was time, Puji

The wind of change was bound to arrive first at the Indian No.3's doorsteps amidst sustained strife after he held the most critical spot astutely and built his greatness over the past decade.  
Cheteshwar Pujara

Few things have ravaged the cricketing discourse quite like bad, analysis-free commentary. Sunil Gavaskar has tended to symbolise and epitomise a lot of it. With his bonafide legendary status and unquestionable technical acumen as a player, Gavaskar could've injected immense value into cricket watching experience. But the person he chooses to be behind the mic belies the man who held firm with the bat against the mightiest of fast-bowling, damaging the public understanding of the sport he mastered when he could've been leading the teachers' bandwagon. 

No wonder the whole "scapegoat" narrative for Cheteshwar Pujara began with Gavaskar insisting he is an easy sacrifice, the protagonist for a dummy change to save faces, not the cause to approach concrete transformation amidst sustained calling for a new dawn in the aftermath of India's Australian drubbing at The Oval in the WTC final. 

Amusing, though, Pujara took to the same social media to post a training clip not long after his axing and found consoling, emotional and morale-boosting support from the fans that Gavaskar felt would ignore his ouster since he lacks "millions of followers" to denounce the selection against him. The aim couldn't have been more direct at Virat Kohli, who averages the same over 3.5 years but stands retained. 

Maybe it was a clip sent on his behalf by someone else, a manager or even a family member, who knows, but it was unlike Pujara to cater to the word on the outside in self-defence, out of character to seek hiding. Even though the very reason he was training was to prep up for the Duleep Trophy fixture for West Zone, the timing of the post was revealing. 

The public almost loves to lap up the masala angles to decision-making, the narrative that in an underfiring line-up, Pujara has been deliberately picked out for the axe to curb the critics' noise for some time while still safeguarding the superstars - or really, The SuperStar - from the grind. Gavaskar and his commentary friends shall feel sorry, but they won't, for evoking and cultivating over decades a conscious/subconscious instinct, where the fan doesn't question and grasp the logic of the decision; instead, indulges in wrangling about it. The lack of communication from the board employing the decision-makers only worsens the situation. 

The cricketing logic tends to be put on a backburner when this white noise plays itself out. So let's discuss logic: Cheteshwar Pujara bats No.3 for India. In a declining, in-transition batting line-up featuring multiple ageing cogs guarding promising but endangered young talents, the No.3 only reattains significance which runs deep, capable of influencing Test matches to the core. 

Any course correction that is idealistically undertaken with honesty, acceptance and pragmatism would first iron out flaws in the top order, where the new ball is supposed to be negotiated with great skill and defiance against fresh quicks to provide the balm to an ailing middle order. The No.3 is the most critical, uncompromisable joint to this hierarchy, he is the spine of the batting line-up. 

India have been fortunate they've had two absolute greats to farm the strike and embolden their spine with excellent gumption and resilience over two and a half decades. Even today, only the harshest, stone-hearted critics would question Pujara's body of work or his place as the most deserving successor to the inimitable and indefatigable Dravid, who would be a testament, more so now as a head coach, that his playing descendant has only built his legacy facing tougher, more robust attacks in conditions bordering more on the extreme. The first-change bowler that Pujara has faced has been more skillful and consistently threatening than the one Dravid did. 

The nature of the realms, where winning home Tests has been key to progression in the WTC structure, has only made breathing space a sporadically achieved asset for batters since the pandemic era began. From the start of 2020, Pujara is averaging 29.69 over 28 Tests and 52 innings, a fall of nearly 20 runs an innings from the pre-Covid days, where he withstand attacks for almost 100 balls per stay in the middle. The corresponding number for the last three and half years is a shade above 75. The strike-rate, which has endured a dip of nearly 15 runs across the two phases, only further reinforces the man's struggles to outlast opposition attacks and ultimately beat them at their game. 

The opposing sides have gotten smarter in their fields, lengths and lines against Pujara, who, for example, no longer has that pressure-easing single available against Nathan Lyon to his advances down the ground, for the shrewd off-spinner now operates with an extra, widish mid-wicket fielder. Lyon would earlier get played into the trap and go straighter with his deliveries from over-the-wicket, which Pujara would happily tap to the on-side. He now not only curbs down the right-hander's scoring zones but also builds greater collective assault against the stumps from around the wicket. 

When Lyon was at the fag end of his previous version, Pujara dominated him to leave his imprints and impact on that epic 2020-21 series in Australia. It wasn't a magnum opus in the mould of the trip two summers earlier but influence marked on a sterner challenge, where Pujara stood like a rock in the toughest batting spans of Test matches and tired the engine of Australian bowling - Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood - to ease the burden of scoring on the rest. 

None of what happened on Day 5 of the historic Gabba Test would've been possible without India's wounded warrior at No.3 absorbing frightening blows when the bowling was at its most hostile and daunting. Just as he did when Cummins was into a series-threatening spell on that defining Day 2 of the MCG Test. Rahane would be the first to recognise and acknowledge Pujara's impact on his fortunes for one of the grittiest hundred made by an Indian batter in modern times. 

Over time, however, Pujara's impactability has deserted him. Especially in the critical first-innings of Tests. In the gloomy part of his career over the past four seasons, this is a player averaging 21.42 in the first half of matches, facing less than 12 overs an innings. Budget for the strenuous nature of the conditions, that is still a bar maintained too low for a great player at the most important spot in the line-up, at a time when India could ill-afford him failing to shield their weak-footed unit. 

And it isn't that Pujara has been managing the conditions much better than an average opposing No.3, the 14 of them, including specialists and nightwatchmen to have played even a single knock in Tests involving Pujara, have a collective average of 30.05 since 2020. Pujara has gone at 30.37 in this period at one-down. Slash the Chattogram Test, where on a genuine flat track, he filled his kitty with a 90 backed by his only Test century since that career-defining 2018-19 Australian series, the average falls to 25.31. 

Besides the numbers, this growing sense of irredeemability to Pujara's declining game would've further encouraged the selectors to move past him. Too many chinks seem to have appeared in the once unbreachable wall, with no solution in sight. Pujara even had to resort to playing aggressively at the start of his innings just to get himself in at The Oval. The most pragmatic judge of risk behind a delivery got out attempting a ramp to a steep rising ball from the short of good length area for potentially his last innings at the Test level. 

It's here that Gavaskar's 'millions of followers' jibe at Kohli is worth bringing into picture, for, clearly, and this is despite the insistence that Kohli gets to retain his spot regardless, the decision-makers feel the No.4 has fewer problems to deal with and is going through more manageable strife. 

Kohli has a well elaborated frontfoot-dominant problem, which has shrunk his backfoot range to almost negligible strokes on the off-side. He tends to stand two steps outside the crease and persists from there with his forward press, leaving himself no time to adjust to the length of the ball. His weight tends to constantly go at the ball and feel for it. Why, he edges the seventh-stump line and why he was out trying to ride the lift on Starc's bouncer in the second-innings in London with his feet outside the crease. A traditional stance would've given Kohli time to duck or even ramp it in Tendulkaresque fashion over the slips. 

But here's the thing: that, even though it is a major problem area for him, is still the only chink that the bonafide great needs to overcome. Cut past that, this is a player regularly finding starts that could expand into a substantial knock. One of which arrived on a lifeless Ahmedabad deck. While not absolving him of the plague, that innings of 186 gave Kohli some critical breathing space, without which, a brave selector would've had the right to drop him straightaway. Pujara failed to earn that respite on a rare flatbed he got to encounter in his twilight. 

Then there is Rahane, whose return to vice-captaincy shocked as many as his comeback to playing rigours. But this is a compromise: selectors are also aware they've brought back a player they dropped for an elongated drought of runs and inconsistency 18 months back. They are also clued up to the fact, however, they're dealing with a middle order missing multiple injured players, one where the leading bat has been failing to impose himself like he did in his pomp, and that the frowning prospect of travelling to South Africa later this year is only 2 Tests away. 

Once Rahane emerged as your best on the job during the WTC clash, he was set for the Caribbean trip. The vice-captaincy, irrelevant as it is in the larger scheme of things, shall not deter us from focusing on the whys and hows of the Rahane comeback. There is a dearth of proven, convincing young batters since Covid heavily disrupted the Ranji Trophy standards and egged on an active, full-fledged 'A' team programme - why they were very careful in filtering out the bumper-scoring Sarfaraz Khan from the more technically equipped, promising and relevant Yashasvi Jaiswal and Ruturaj Gaikwad - and Rahane has the pace game to cater to the demands of battling it out in the rainbow nation. 

It was time, then, for Pujara to go, for there is no other slot where the great man could've found his calling or space to regain the lost mojo. The next No.3 is here, unless the prodigiously talented Shubman Gill drops one spot. Jaiswal maybe not the batter perfectly in sync with the Dravid and Pujara lineage but offers a prospect for the next decade and a half. A trip to the Caribbean being an ideal platform for the wind to change in Indian cricket, the team would dearly love Jaiswal to make as shining a start as Pujara did in his quest to eventually replace the country's finest No.3. 

Either way, the dawn on Cheteshwar Pujara has arrived - this time it seems for real after flirting with the thought last year when they tried and dispelled Hanuma Vihari at No.3. That even the stoic Vihari failed to grab his opportunity instantly only told us how laborious and gruelling it remains to nail down the spot one rung below, which shall only make us stand up and salute the masterful work Dravid's worthy successor managed to put in over the past decade and more. 

The final phase wouldn't belie his greatness, the triumph of the human spirit that Pujara's career signified. And though it shouldn't have been an uncharacteristic stroke to end a career built on steadfast defence and grind, so it concluded for the man whose shoes Pujara filled in astutely and walked the miles. One who would be the first to hold him in the greatest, deepest felt regard and respect. Be proud, Puji!! Be very proud.