Not Cool

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. For India these past few weeks they have come thick and fast: Rahane for assuming the reins with such assurance and clarity of purpose, Gill for the sort of strokeplay – those half cuts, half drives through cover, sure, but also the odd defensive shot – which leaves you with little doubt you will be watching him for years on end. Mohammed Siraj, bowling lines, nipping it around, testing the batsmen in the consistent way you rarely used to see from Indian seamers but which now, with the bar raised by Bumrah, you expect. Pant, of course Pant, his instinctive power and desire to attack supplemented by his blithe, hitherto unshaken confidence. These are just some of the people who helped secure a series win for the ages, and then some.

Then there is Pujara. Modern cricket’s great outlier; a man you could term an anti-hero if such a description didn’t have overtones of cool. Because cool is something Pujara has never been and will never be, but this is of no matter because being cool is something which will never cross his mind. One of the signature effects of the evolving hegemony of short form cricket is the way in which, in most circumstances, the raison d’etre of batting has become the need to score as many runs as possible as quickly as possible. Technical merit is optional, as is fear of dismissal. If you can’t score quickly you’re better off getting out. When this attitude trickles into the mindset of a team in long-form cricket, they can quickly start to resemble lemmings plunging off a cliff. The comical Sri Lankan first innings at Galle exemplified this.

Pujara has never subscribed to this approach, and, as he gets older, he gives the impression of someone who increasingly wants, almost self-consciously, to reject it. And it is easily forgotten that where the nature of a game is not rigidly circumscribed by a finite number of overs it is always helpful not to lose your wicket. It is more important that you are still out there, even if your ponderousness and lack of style can start to frustrate your own supporters. If it is doing that to them you can be sure that it is having a far worse effect on the opposing side.

Pujara can easily be defined by what he is not. He is not cool, he does not score quickly, he does not have the charisma of Kohli or the hair of Siraj. What he does have is a pile of runs and an ocean of bravery. For all that many of his responses to the barrage of short balls he faced in the second innings in Brisbane were inadequate and revealed a chink in his armour which other bowlers will seek to exploit, his ability to withstand danger and pain to preserve his place at the crease had echoes of another batsman who wore the white rose of Yorkshire in a very different place and time.

In his reflexive stubbornness, his rejection of the batting zeitgeist, and the way in which the staccato nature of his technique often masks his class, there is a tendency for Pujara to remind me of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. There were times in his more extreme moods when Chanderpaul seemed to have forgotten that the fundamental purpose of batting is to score runs, and, in his latter days in the West Indies side there was the question of who, if not him, was going to do so. This is less of an issue for Pujara, not because he doesn’t start to look like that at times – he very much does – but that these days he always has someone, Kohli, or Gill, or Rahane, or Pant, who will score rapidly at the other end.

Soon, against England, he will check his grip and resume his stance. If he does it once he will probably do so hundreds and hundreds of times. He will not be cool, but for as long as he is batting, it will not matter.

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