It was baptism by fire for rookie Cheteshwar Pujara when he toured South Africa in 2010 in his first and only series away from home till date. Drafted into the side after a brilliant match-winning 72 against Australia in his debut Test at Bangalore, Pujara was expected to lend support to arguably one of world's best middle-order line up, comprising Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.
The blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket that time, with his entire career ahead of him, suffered at the hands of a fiery Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Three full years later, sans any of the above-mentioned stalwarts, Pujara heads into the Test series in South Africa as the most established Test batsman in the Indian top-6.
Much has changed in these three years. Pujara has fought a career-threatening knee injury, which forced him out of the humiliating away series debacles in England and Australia. He has seen the one-day team lift the World Cup and has showed enough class in his five-day abilities to be compared with the erstwhile 'Wall' of Indian cricket - Dravid. His impression as a Test mainstay got further repute when a US website listed him among the top-10 investment options in sports in the world.
Pujara is expected to always remain in the shadow of Dravid. However, I, as an eager fan of the 25-year-old, wish that he not just matches his hero, but creates a niche for himself as his career moves along. One of the major parameters by which a batsman is worthy of being compared to Dravid is his performance in foreign and hostile conditions, something that the former India skipper reveled in.
For this 25-year-old, the start has been great to Test cricket. Batting at No.3, mostly at home, Pujara has shown the penchant of batting for long hours in the middle, a trait Dravid was admired and respected for. The influx Twenty20 cricket has not affected a classical Pujara, unlike many other stroke-players of the current generation.
As a batsman, Pujara possesses the gift of batting for long periods of time along with a Laxman-like ability to wear down the opposition bowlers. In 2010, an untested Pujara mostly tried to survive the spells of Steyn and Morkel as loose deliveries were few and far between. The challenge for him only gets tougher this time around as the South Africans have a sense of what he is capable of.
For Dravid, South Africa was as hostile as it can get. In fact, he averaged a mere 29.71 in 11 Tests in South Africa with his maiden hundred -148- coming in his first tour of the Rainbow Nation. India's No.3 for over 15 years, Dravid failed to even get a fifty in his last two tours there in 2006-07 and 2010-11. Conversely, Dravid's teammates feared better in the South African conditions with Ganguly averaging 36 in 8 Tests and Laxman averaging 40 in 10 games.
For Pujara though, the challenges lay more than just expectations of filling in the big boots of the former Mr. Dependable. Though, he looks seemingly flawless in his technique, Pujara has admitted to chinks in his armour. One of the things he is looking to iron out ahead of the two Tests on the pacy decks at Wanderers, Johannesburg and Kingsmead, Durban is the hook shot, something that has led to his downfall in the past.
"One shot that I will like to avoid in South Africa is the hook. I feel I don't have good control while attempting that stroke. The Johannesburg and Durban wickets have decent bounce as well as lateral movement. Hence it's important to be careful with your shot selection," Pujara recently told Starsports.com.
The reason why Pujara fears playing the hook stroke is because he has not had total control while facing the short pitched delivery on certain occasions. In fact, all of his four dismissals of being out caught to a fast bowler in Tests have been while facing a bouncer. In 2010, he pulled Lonwabo Tsotsobe and was caught by Mark Boucher at Durban. In 2012 at Bangalore, Pujara went for an impulsive hook and was caught at deep fine-leg off Kiwi pacer Tim Southee. Against Australia earlier this year, he tried to pull James Pattinson and was taken by Xavier Doherty in the deep in the Hyderabad Test. And most recently, he was caught-behind playing an uncharacteristic uppercut off West Indian debutant Sheldon Cottrell at Eden Gardens.
To counter this handicap, which the South African pacers will be well aware of, Pujara can look no further than to Dravid or Sachin, who seldom got out to the short ball. At number three, Pujara is expected to face a barrage of bouncers from the South Africans. If he succeeds implementing what he plans to change in his batting, it may well result in a successful outing for the Saurashtra right-hander.
Pujara did have a taste of the conditions there earlier this year, when he captained India A side for the two 'unofficial' Tests against South Africa A in Pretoria and Rustenburg. Despite scoring a century and a fifty in the 1-1 drawn series in August, Pujara says that things will be a lot different when they face Steyn, Morkel and Vernon Philander.
"We know the conditions will not be identical since the wickets were flatter then. However, we expect the bounce on the wickets to be similar. That experience should be handy. But one thing we need to keep in mind is that facing up against experienced bowlers like Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel is a different proposition all together," he said.
With 5 hundreds already in his 15 Tests, two of them double tons, an average of 65.50, expectations are high from this run-machine. In a month's time we'll find out whether or not he has lived up his billing.