Cheteshwar Pujara was hailed as the next Rahul Dravid much before he made his Test debut and scored a sparkling 72 in a tricky chase in Bengaluru in 2010. Everything seemed set for his annotation as the successor to The Wall. But the years since then have been a paradox, with his statistics telling one story, and purists and pundits pushing another.
After a sparkling start, a career-threatening injury kept him out of action in 2011 but the Saurashtra batsman came back strongly and scored big runs at home over the next two years. But ungainly performances on the tours of New Zealand, England and Australia sparked debates about his ineffectiveness in alien conditions. He clawed his way back while scoring a match-turning unbeaten 145 on a tough pitch as an opener at Colombo in 2015 and enjoyed great success in the next two years while playing at home.
Given his technical proficiencies and penchant for tall scores, his shoddy performance outside the sub-continent was considered as an aberration. By the time India visited the shores of South Africa, Pujara was expected to turn his abysmal overseas record around but alas, he could muster only 100 runs at 16.67 in six innings. With India due to tour England for a five-Test series, Pujara travelled to England and turned out for Yorkshire in order to get acclimatise to the conditions beforehand.
But as luck would have it, the No. 3 batsman could only gather 172 runs in 12 innings with a highest score of 41. He failed to get going in India's solitary practice game against Essex tallying only 24 across his two stints in the middle. Despite the alarming numbers, Pujara was expected to walk into the playing XI at Edgbaston but Virat Kohli had other ideas. His omission created a huge clamour among the cricketing fraternity with the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Nasser Hussain expressing shock over the non-inclusion of Pujara. India lost the first Test by 31 runs. Could Pujara have made the difference?
Pujara's woeful form in England - 222 runs in 10 innings - coupled with his struggles in the recent County season suggest maybe not. But, somehow, almost inevitably, the value of his style of batsmanship is always revisited when the ball is moving prodigiously and India lose an early wicket. One of the big reasons for this is Pujara's ability to soak up pressure and bat for time - a rare quality in Test batsmen these days. His painstaking 179-ball 50 where he took 54 balls to open his account during the Johannesburg Test earlier this year is a prime example of his contributions other than making runs.
With the Lord's Test kick starting from Thursday (August 9), it is unlikely that Pujara will be picked. Why? Because his statistics don't warrant him a selection and the team management is unlikely to change their mind. But, again, inevitably, his exclusion will spark huge debate. The Pujara paradox lives on.