Is it a crime to be exceptional at one form of an art that you are considered a misfit for the other forms? Cheteshwar Pujara might be pardoned if he were to think so. Pujara, along with Virat Kohli are two soldiers of the new battalion of Indian players who have faced up to every challenge that has been thrown at them and come out on top with their credibility enhanced on most occasions.
Cheteshwar Pujara. Pic/AFP and (inset) Krishnamachari Srikkanth
Moved out of his normal batting slot of No 3 to open the innings when Shikhar Dhawan got injured ahead of the Test match at Delhi against Australia last year, Pujara came out with his head held high scoring 52 and 82 not out to guide the team to victory.
In the recent Test series against South Africa where India were expected to be demolished with their inexperienced line-up, Pujara was one of the rocks to stand in the way and provide a spirited fight against a bowling attack which had the ability to extract a lethal combination of pace, bounce and swing. He finished the two-match series with 280 runs at an impressive average of 70. And purely for scoring runs consistently and compiling an average of over 60 runs in 14 Tests in the last two calendar years, he probably deserves to be picked and tested in the ODI team.
His contributions have not been limited to the longer version. Playing for India ‘A’ in the tri-series in South Africa in August last year, Pujara scored a 97-ball 109 for a record 285-run partnership with Dhawan in setting a colossal target of 433 against South Africa ‘A’. Earlier in the year, his breezy 71 off 67 balls and a century partnership with now India teammate Ajinkya Rahane had helped West Zone beat North Zone in the Deodhar Trophy final.
Pujara’s biggest strength is the combination of technique and temperament, an ability to stand solid in the face of pressure, a skill that the Indian ODI team can ill-afford to miss. A look at India’s ODI statistics in the last three years provide a disturbing trend – the Indian batting line-up is dismissed within the allotted quota of overs in one every four matches and the same gets worse to one every three matches when they play outside the sub-continent.
Three of the last four ODIs that India have played is a case in point - in South Africa and in New Zealand, the Indian batting line-up has been dismissed within 50 overs (while the third ODI in South Africa was washed out). While the problem is still short of being called an epidemic since a number of these have been in the course of chasing down and some in trying to chase down a huge target, the issue remains and stands in the way of believing that the Indian batting is well-settled and does not need to be tampered with.
India play outside the sub-continent through most of this year and this run extends up to the World Cup to be held in Australia and New Zealand early next year. The pitches are expected to offer reasonable assistance to bowlers and with strokeplayers that are dime a dozen in India’s current batting line-up, it becomes imperative to create space for someone who possesses the ability to hold one end up allowing the others to work towards keeping the run rate moving northwards.
A number of past players including Sourav Ganguly have come out in support of having Pujara in the team for the limited overs. Former chairman of selectors and opening batsman Krishnamachari Srikkanth agrees that Pujara should be seriously considered. He says, “Rahul Dravid filled up that role (as an anchor) pretty well. Pujara is now an established Test cricketer, a good option and should be given a chance (in ODIs).”
Aakash Chopra, former India opener in Tests and whose technique has always come in for much praise, felt that there was a case to give the man a look in for the ODIs. ‘With so many matches to be played outside the sub-continent and with two new balls being operated, someone like Pujara who is technically correct should have a go”
Asked on the perception that Pujara is a slower batsman to get off the blocks and on the scoring rate, he opines, “he’s not someone to get absolutely bogged down. He tends to get on with the game and he’s got the shots as well. He’s got a fairly decent attacking and aggressive game also”. Chopra adds, “Pujara has a case to be included when we go outside the sub-continent. In the sub-continent, the par scores change radically to much more than 300, the strike rate requirement is over a 100 consistently with an ability to his sixes and Pujara might not match up with some of the strokeplayers.”
The Indian selectors led by Sandeep Patil have done a reasonably good job in picking the right players and showing a fair amount of consistency, but let us not make the mistake of under-estimating the notorious image of being flat track bullies or miscalculating the matches that the man in question might need, to adjust himself to the requirements of our ODI team. In this day and age of constant cricket, ‘Horses for courses’ is a useful handle to adopt. The opportunity might have been missed in not blooding him in the ongoing series in New Zealand for the role being talked about, but let the decision not come in too late for the World Cup.