Without Cheteshwar Pujara bolstering India’s top-order at Edgbaston, India’s batsmen were unable to cope with England’s swing. Ben Jones reflects on the shock of Pujara’s non-selection, and considers how his presence could have changed events.
Picture the scene. You’re in the supermarket doing the weekly shop, and you’re nearly finished, everything on the list is ticked off and now you’re just grabbing the final bits and bobs. You know you only have enough left in the budget for one more item, and you find yourself stood there with a packet of Jaffa Cakes in one hand, and a box of Magnums in the other. It’s a cruel and difficult choice that needs to be made, and you’re beginning to reflect on how life truly is full of compromises – but then you have a ‘brainwave’. If you put the washing-up liquid back, you can shave a few pounds off the shop, and get both the biscuits and the ice cream.
This might not be an immediately relatable situation for everyone, but one gets the feeling Ravi Shastri will be nodding in recognition. Last Wednesday, India had to make a decision on their top three ahead of the Edgbaston Test, the series opener. The obvious choice was to select the rock-solid Cheteshwar Pujara at three, then set about the tough task of making a call on one of the two glamorous, swashbuckling openers, KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan. Yet Shastri, and all those with a say in selection, looked at their shopping basket, threw in both the Magnums and Jaffa Cakes, and left the washing up liquid on the shelf.
Because for a number of reasons, not selecting Pujara at Birmingham was a staggering decision. Reflecting on a Test match where some dogged defence was in short supply for India, and the margin of victory was so slim, his absence already feels like a turning point in the series, a switch in momentum before a ball was bowled. On a very straightforward level, Pujara is an astonishingly prolific batsman, comfortably in the elite strata of Test batsman over the past four years. He is, by traditional measures, absolutely world-class.
Moreover, it’s bizarre that the security Pujara offers at the top order was tossed aside. His runs are compiled with a level of precision which is almost unparalleled in the present era; across the last decade of Test cricket, only Virat Kohli plays a false shot more rarely than Pujara. Che’s control is sublime.
However, the strongest case for Pujara’s selection at Edgbaston comes when you consider the specific challenge posed. The scorching summer of 2018 has decimated both the grass and all other topics of conversation, but the searing heat didn’t have quite the effect on Edgbaston’s playing conditions that many were anticipating. Yes, Ashwin and Rashid found turn, but as one would expect in an English home summer, the primary weapon was swing bowling. The ball moved substantially in the air – indeed, only six Tests have seen the ball swing more in the last decade – and the ability of any given batsman to combat the movement became the primary requirement for success with the bat.
With this in mind, here’s the killer figure – of all the players in India’s squad, Pujara has the highest average against swing bowling, and by a frankly comical margin. The average delivery from the quick bowlers at Edgbaston swung 1.475°; against deliveries moving that much across their careers, only one Indian player averages over 40. That man is Pujara, and he averages 90.60.
It’s an astonishing marker of his suitability for batting in England, and even with the luxury of hindsight, it seems a remarkable oversight that his skills weren’t deployed in Birmingham. One assumes that the Indian staff are fully aware of his pre-eminence against the swinging ball. So why was he carrying the drinks at Edgbaston?
Well, one can understand the aesthetic temptation to leave him out. Pujara is a less attractive player to watch than some of the other members of the India squad, less attacking in his intent and less fluent in his output, and the allure of two stroke-makers making up an assertive top three is clear. Selecting both Vijay and Pujara in that top-order is a decision made with security in mind, with survival squarely set as the primary goal, rather than a last resort if things go badly. Rather like selecting two defensive midfielders in a double-pivot in football, having two more defensive-minded players in such quick succession can appear clunky or conservative, particularly if you are the team expected to dominate proceedings – as India should be, given the depth of talent available for them to select from.
Equally, Pujara’s record away from India has been an issue. In home Tests, since the start of 2016, he averages 60.74; away from home, that average drops to 39.25. There is evidently a drop-off in Pujara’s ability to perform on tour but, as we’ve established, the basis of that drop-off is not in his game against swing. Since the start of 2016, Pujara averages 28.66 against the short ball in away Tests. It’s simplistic to suggest he’s getting ‘bounced out’, but it’s one explanation for his struggles on the road. Of course in England, steepling bounce is less of a threat than in South Africa or Australia, and Pujara’s potential weakness against the short ball is less likely to be exposed. If his travails away from home are the reason for his absence in the first Test, then he’s been unlucky.
As it stands, one suspects Shikhar Dhawan will make room for Pujara at Lord’s. Rahul will most likely be bumped up to the opening spot, with Pujara slotting in at No.3. This is good news for Rahul, a wonderfully gifted batsman but one who averages 43.33 as an opener and just 15.16 elsewhere in the line-up. It may also prove good news for Pujara himself – he averaged 41 at Lord’s and Trent Bridge (the next two venues for the series) on the last tour, and may find this an easier introduction to the contest than the fiery partisanship of the Edgbaston crowd. Regardless, India will be desperate for Pujara to come back and add some stability to a top order which at Edgbaston looked too cavalier to succeed in this series.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.