Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cheteshwar Pujara- A fine prospect for the future of Indian Cricket

It was evident during Australia’s 4-0 drubbing of India that Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are definitely past their prime. The truth was there for everyone to see and it is quite clear now that it is time for young Indian batsmen to make their way into the Indian batting line-up and build a new India. Amidst all the touting of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane as the men of tomorrow of Indian Cricket, I hope the selectors have not forgotten a debutant who played a crucial role in the test victory against Australia at Bangalore in October 2010. Not that Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane, etc. are any less capable, but this particular player is as capable as they are and would have definitely featured in all the test squads after the tour of South Africa had injury not intervened. This young Indian batsman is Cheteshwar Pujara.

Hailing from Saurashtra, Pujara first made his way into the good books of the selectors after some fine and consistent performances in first-class cricket and in India-A tours. With poor form ruling out Yuvraj Singh from the test squad against Australia in 2010, he first got selected in the team as a back-up middle order batsman and was made to warm the bench for the 1st test at Mohali which resulted in a miraculous victory for India. But opportunity soon dawned on Pujara. The man who played the most crucial role in the Mohali victory, VVS Laxman, pulled out of the 2nd Test at Bangalore with a back injury and Pujara was asked to replace him in the batting order. After sitting in the dressing room for more than 2 hours with his pads on due to a mammoth 303 runs partnership between M. Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar, he faced his 1st ball in test cricket off Mitchell Johnson, which he hit for a 4 through the covers. But the very next ball resulted in a sad thing: he was out, lbw. But there was more to the story of his test debut.

Cheteshwar Pujara pulls during that unforgettable innings of 72

 The match entered a decisive and interesting stage on day 5. Virender Sehwag was out, India required 200+ to win and the whole world expected the usual man at no. 3, Rahul Dravid, to stroll out of the dressing room and take guard. But that was not to be. Instead of Dravid, it was young Pujara coming out at no.3 and many were surprised. Pujara had a very positive approach in his batting from the beginning, not afraid of the occasion, and played some excellent shots. His technique struck me. THWACK, THWACK, THWACK, he pulled Mitchell Johnson’s short balls to the boundary. Those shots remain fresh in my memory. He made a well-crafted half-century and guided the team forward with M. Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar giving him company at the crease. The coach’s and the captain’s decision to send him instead of Dravid at no. 3 was vindicated. Dravid was not in form before that match and was out early in the first innings, so probably the team thought of sending Pujara at 3. For whatever reason that decision was taken, it paid off in the end. Unfortunately, his entertaining and positive innings had to end when he was on 72. But he had done his job before he left, so I had to say, “Well played, young man”. Dravid came in at 5 and joined Tendulkar after Pujara’s departure and the duo maintained the positive approach. They brought about the victory for India and Pujara had played a crucial role in it. I was very impressed. In the test series in South Africa, he finally got his chance in Durban replacing an out of form Suresh Raina at no. 6, after being used for drinks, towels and substitute fielder duty in the previous 4 tests. He also played in the subsequent match at Capetown. Although he did not score many runs in that series, he showed powers of temperament and fight by sticking it out with VVS Laxman during his decisive innings of 96 in India’s 1st innings at Durban in tough circumstances, tough conditions and against great bowlers like Steyn and Morkel. After seeing all this, there is less doubt in my mind that Pujara is the candidate to replace Dravid at no. 3 in Tests.

When we think about Test batsmanship, immediately the words “technique” and “temperament” come to our mind. Especially when we are thinking about batsmanship at the no. 3 slot. Is there any doubt that Pujara has those traits? I don’t think so. The general idea about the role of a no. 3 batsman is that when an early wicket falls, he should be able to negotiate the new ball and then take it forward. Pujara can do that. During the recently concluded Border-Gavaskar series, Ian Chappell mentioned a very good point about batting at no. 3. He said that a no. 3 batsman should be able to take the team and the game forward with his batting. Being a batsman who is adept in attack and defence, Pujara is capable of doing that. Also, most importantly, he has a cool mind and is not afraid of anything. Therefore, I think he is suitable for the no. 3 position in Tests.

He is now out of injury and has played a few first class games. So, I expect to see him in the squad for the next Test series. With a new horizon in sight for Indian cricket, players like him are surely the need of the hour. 

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