Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Shock Absorber: Beyond Numbers

Rishabh Pant has played the best knock of his fledgling career and has perhaps exorcised the demons that haunted him between the 2018 tour down under and this tour. Shubman Gill has announced his arrival on the big stage and he will be a Superstar for the coming decade. Mohammed Siraj has once again vindicated the belief in our first class system and the emergence of new India. Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur turned the test head over heels when Australia were in sight of a 130 plus first innings lead. Everyone contributed to this extraordinary win at Gabba. It was truly a team effort.

Every smooth riding vehicle requires an efficient shock absorber. Great monuments stand on great foundations. Cheteshwar Pujara was that shock absorber and that foundation in this series. When we enlist great Indian batsmen of the last 50 years, we will remember Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli, VVS Laxman and Virender Sehwag. But what does Cheteshwar possess that none of these greats have ? He has anchored two test series wins in Australia while none of the past masters have even one. Kohli played second fiddle to Pujara in 2018 and missed all the fun this time.

Right through his career and especially during this series, people have criticized Pujara for his slow batting and lack of "intent". He even was dropped during the 2014 tour down under. When Rohit Sharma plays rank bad shot and gets out, people defend him claiming, "That's his natural style." Strangely, same people slam Pujara for "Tuktuk" batting. Double standards ! Fortunately for India, Pujara hasn't allowed none of this to affect him and has carried on with a Sagely calm.

Pujara scored just 271 runs in the series with an average of 33.88 per innings. His strike rate was 29.2%. Both are way below par compared to his career statistics. He scored almost twice as many runs during the 2018 tour of Australia. But perhaps, these 271 runs are worth a lot more than the ordinary numbers. Here is the reasoning.

In 8 innings, Pujara occupied the crease for 1368 minutes or 22 Hours and 48 minutes. He faced 928 balls in the process and got out to extraordinarily good balls in 7 out of the 8 knocks. He played just one ordinary shot to get out while facing 928 balls. Cummins was the best Australian bowler in the series and Pujara alone faced 42 overs or more than 25% of his bowling. The importance of Pujara's knocks go far beyond mere numbers.

The one innings where he got out to a "duck", India folded up 36 all out in 20 overs. The other innings where he got out early was when India chased a small target to win the second test. Taking out these two innings, the least number of balls Pujara faced was 70 or almost 12 overs and the earliest he got out was after 105 minutes. During every other visit to the crease, he spent a minimum of two and a half hours and today, it was 5 hours and a quarter.

He took body blows, ten of them today and stood there like a rock till he got LBW verdict that would have been not out if the Umpire were to think the benefit of doubt goes to batsman. But well, he had laid the foundation for the sensational win. Why was Pujara's time at the crease important ? Look at Australia's most destructive bowler Mitchell Starc. He ended up with 11 wickets at 44 runs per wicket. In essence, Pujara blunted Australia's most lethal bowler and in fact, shielded other batsmen through the most difficult and hostile spells. If we recollect how listless the Australian bowlers looked in the last session when India charged towards victory, we can understand the significance of the grind.

Cheteshwar Pujara simply ground the Aussie bowlers to dust so that the other batsmen could attack the tired bowlers. It was a team effort and Pujara had a role assigned. He managed to execute that like a dedicated soldier, like a guard in charge of protecting a fort. Every blow that he took on the body was a badge of honor. Those balls perhaps would have got other batters out. There were 10 of them, exactly the number of wickets Australia needed to win the test. He spent a total of 10 hours at the crease in the fourth innings of the third and fourth tests. One a thrilling draw and then a magnificent win.

People tend to ignore the foundation when they admire a great monument and nobody thinks of the silent shock absorber after a smooth journey. That is how the world is. But the foundations and shock absorbers don't really bother and continue to perform their duties. When Pujara calls it a day, he will leave with the satisfaction, happiness and pride of winning two back to back test series in Australia and breaching the Australian fortress of Gabba. The meek did inherit the earth at the Gabba. We witnessed that happening and the magnificence of the "Shock Absorber" cannot be emphasized in a few hundred words. I just tried !

Govind Raj Shenoy for DieHard Cricket Fans

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