Johannesburg – Cheteshwar Pujara’s Test career has only spanned three years and 15 Tests, but already there’s a default setting with which to describe him.
‘The New Wall,’ or ‘Dravid 2.0’ have been the common strains of reference as the 25- year-old seeks to cement a spot in the Indian top order.
The comparisons are understandable, not just in terms of methods at the crease, but personality too. Also understandably, Pujara, wants no part of such comparisons (as you’d imagine Dravid would too if asked about an Indian batsmen who played before he did).
“There’s no comparison with God and his devotee. To achieve what Dravid has, one has to struggle a lot and must have that consistency,” Pujara told one Indian newspaper.
“Also one needs to mature a lot to play like him. To stay at the wicket and win so many matches is not easy at all. Toughness is the key. I learnt a lot from Rahulbhai and please don’t compare me with him,” Pujara was quoted as saying.
The comparisons with Dravid sprung up in the wake of an eight-and-a-half-hour epic against England at Ahmedabad last November when he made a double century which set the foundation for a nine-wicket win for his side.
Those who had watched him at school level and then for his state side – Saurashtra – had long believed he would be a part of India’s senior team, and become the bedrock, much as Dravid was for the Test side in the next 10 years.
And comparisons with Dravid, while regarded as exaggerated, are understandable, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say Pujara will be India’s most important batsmen in Tests for the next decade.
It’s the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma, who will thrill the crowds with glamorous stroke-play, but it will be Pujara who must be the glue to combine their batting order. He is a very cool character and in South Africa, particularly at the Wanderers where the ball will be flying past the batsmen’s head, that icy demeanor will be vital to India’s chances.
Like Dravid he has a rock-solid technique, he’s also not flustered about how much time it takes him to score runs and he’s unlikely to get involved in the verbal exchanges sure to occur in the middle.
Pujara wasn’t part of the Indian ODI team who got belted last week, so he isn’t affected by any of the scars the South Africans believe they opened up against some of the other Indian batsmen. “When you are mentally prepared, when you are in the best frame of mind, then you have the best chance of performing on the field,” he said about getting ready to face South Africa’s quicks.
Part of that preparation included an innings of 269 for Saurashtra against Tamil Naidu in the Ranji Trophy a week before he came to South Africa. Forget, the conditions being different he said, the important part was spending time in the middle. “When you’ve scored runs in your last innings, you feel good about yourself, you’re confident, the kind of runs I had in the last match, I spent a lot of time at the crease, so it improves my concentration and when you are concentrating well, it becomes easier to adjust to conditions.”
India’s batsmen have placed a lot of emphasis on leaving the ball, with Pujara explaining that at the Wanderers it is possible to leave the ball based on the bounce. “It’s about the bounce, you obviously have to get through the new ball, on these pitches, the new Kookaburra ball does a it, but once you get through that phase, it’s easier to score runs and to bat. The important thing is not to lose wickets to the new ball, just deal with the bounce and get used to the pace of the wickets.”
In the absence of Tendulkar – for the first time in 24 years – Pujara says India need a collective effort to succeed in South Africa, and that communication between the batsmen is crucial. “It’s up to the whole batting unit to take responsibility (for scoring runs). When someone is in form, it’s up to that player to take the team through, not just me or Virat, it’s the unit as a whole.
“The last one and a half years have been really good for me. I think I’ve become a more mature player. Playing against Australia and England has helped me a lot because they have very good fast bowling.”
Of course those series’ came in India, and as Dale Steyn said recently, “this is not Mumbai.”
Pujara will become well aware of that, and he’ll also be aware that the man to whom he is most often compared made his first Test century at the Wanderers almost 17 years ago. Dravid made 148 in India’s first innings back in January 1997, providing India with a chance to nearly pull off a remarkable win – only the rain and a Daryll Cullinan century saved South Africa in that match.
Matches – 15
Runs – 1310
Average – 65.50
Highest Score – 206*
100s – 5
50s – 3