CricViz analyst Ben Jones assesses whether the success of India’s No.3 is due to a technical change, or just their class shining through.
Edgbaston, 2018. It’s not quite as evocative as the date which preceded it by 13 years, but for Indian cricket, it could come to be as prestigious a moment.
On the 1st of August, India dropped Cheteshwar Pujara.
They opted to pick KL Rahul, the swaggering talent of half-fulfilled wonder, ahead of their hard-knock proven No.3. It was a staggering decision, one that left the press box and the stands aghast. One senior journalist in the room, when the decision was announced, exclaimed “where the **** is Pujara?”. It was a sentiment shared by many. Even now, it feels like a bizarre decision, and that may have cost India that Test. They lost it by 31 runs. Rahul made 17 runs in the match.
Yet if you proffer this opinion, that the decision to drop Pujara was a catastrophic error, you will be met with resistance from many who insist that the dropping was the best thing to ever happen to him. They insist that he changed his technique as a result of the dropping, altering the issue that had prevented him from completely dominating away from home in the way he had in India.
It’s fair to offer this. Since being dropped, and then subsequently returning for the following Test at Lord’s, Pujara has faced 2,035 deliveries, more than any other batsman in the world. He’s faced more deliveries and made his runs at a better average than his captain.He has become a colossus, ascending to a level others have been unable to match.
So, it feels appropriate to ask the question: has Pujara actually changed anything?
The first thing to isolate is that the problem for Pujara, an untrusted tourist, was that people didn’t think he could play the moving ball away from home. Whilst this isn’t completely borne out in the data, the numbers do point towards a clear issues against pace – specifically, an issue against good length deliveries from seamers.
This feels so incongruous, considering the caricature of Pujara. He is a wall, a Dravidian descendant who can bat for days – surely his resistance can’t be undone by the most basic of things, the ball on an awkward length? How can a man so solid average less than the 20.79 that top seven batsmen have averaged against those deliveries in the last two years? Yet the data suggests that, despite our impressions, this has been a flaw.
Equally, since the the Birmingham rejection, that record has altered significantly. His career average against pace in SENA countries (28.89) has risen to 37.33. It’s not huge, but it’s allowed him to dominate.
He has improved against all lengths, more solid in all areas, but most crucially he’s improved against those good length balls.
There are a number of things one could do to counter this kind of issue. You could bat more or less out of your crease, in the manner of Virat Kohli. The Indian captain has taken to striking the ball on average 2.2m away from his stumps during this series, whilst others like Ajinkya Rahane have opted to make the most of their back foot strength and sit deep. However, Pujara appears to have done neither.
An alternative option is that he’s playing the ball into different areas. If the batsman is looking to score in alternative areas of the field, and is succeeding, then that points to a change in technique. Across his career, Pujara has typically been heavy scoring behind square. That trademark cut, underrated in its aesthetic beauty and its ability to make you catch your breath, allows him to batter the seamers through backward point.
If we compare that to how Pujara has gone in these last two away series, has that changed?
Barely. These are minor alterations, the sort of small changes that are the result of an edged four here, a skewed drive there. Nothing has changed here. Pujara is still Pujara.
So if the issue in the South Africa series – the one that preceded being dropped – was the way he played pace, and he hasn’t changed when or where he’s hitting the ball, then how has he changed his intent?
In South Africa, he averaged a jot under 20, and struggled against the marauding seamers, let loose on hard, spitting pitches, but how did he respond? Has he run scared? Has he come out all guns blazing?
Below is Pujara’s batting record in SENA countries, across his career.
Since being recalled Pujara has attacked balls on his stumps less and attacked balls outside off stump more. He has, generally, been very aggressive off his pads, but cautious outside off stump, but this pattern has changed in that last six months. It is a tweak, an alteration in intent which hasn’t seen him score more heavily through off (as we’ve seen), but an alteration nonetheless.
So what we’re seeing here is a man who has slightly increased his intent in one area, whilst slightly decreasing his intent in another. It is a man who has changed his modus operandi marginally, but has certainly not thrown his previous game away. This is unequivocally not a man transformed.
And so, it’s fair to push back. Pujara has not become a different player since being removed from the side in Birmingham – he has simply regressed to the mean.
This is a phrase that, for better or for worse, has become associated with analytics. Leave things be, we say, and everything will revert to the norm. Leave Stuart Broad in the Test side, and he will take wickets. Keep Jose Mourinho, and he will win games. It is an instinctively and emotionally difficult argument to take, and it is easy to throw it back in the faces of those who throw it in yours. But is is valid, and it is important.
Because it’s simply a new version of an old idea. “Form is temporary, class is permanent”. Pujara will go to bed tonight with a Test batting average of 51.07. Of those to play 20 Tests in their career – the standard, accepted line where a sample becomes reasonable – just 32 men in history have managed to better Pujara’s record. Here before our eyes is a great of the game, a player of such skill and substance that only a generous handful of those before him could compete.
Yet he isn’t trusted. Perhaps this is an aesthetic issue, though I’ve made my personal position clear. Perhaps it is a broader issue, his status as a man untethered to an IPL franchise leaving him with fewer hardcore supporters than others in his homeland. Perhaps it’s simply that, aware of the crop of wonderful players at their disposal, India’s selectors erred on the side of youth and aggression.
But history will suggest that their decision was wrong. If Pujara plays in Birmingham, India may win that Test. They may remain faithful to a victorious side, and decide against including Kuldeep on the greentop at Lord’s. They may ultimately defeat an England side strong in spirit but low on confidence, and then arrive in Australia not with a point to prove, but with a supremacy to affirm. The history of Indian cricket could well have been oh so different.
Yet ultimately, this is just another microcosm. Pujara is a great, a great who will transcend any of these series, and anybody who doesn’t acknowledge this is wrong. And yet, as Day One turns into Day Two across the harbour in this famous city, India are content. They have assumed a dominant position in their most important Test of the 21st century, their overnight WinViz an assured 66%. At this most crucial of moments, they are in control of their destiny. For that, they can thank Chesteshwar Pujara: unassuming, unchanged, immoveable.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.