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Forever Dispensable Pujara Has to Rise Again from the Sidelines

Cricketnext Staff | Updated: August 2, 2018, 9:05 PM IST
Forever Dispensable Pujara Has to Rise Again from the Sidelines

Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay. (AP Image)

Moments after Saurashtra’s loss to Karnataka in the final of the Vijay Hazare trophy in February 2018, Cheteshwar Pujara was already thinking about his next stop, the county circuit where he would play for Yorkshire during the Indian Premier League. His thought process was simple – to prepare for the challenge that the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad will present later in the year when he tours England with India.

The stint unfortunately wasn’t a success with early season conditions making batting quite hard. Pujara averaged just 14.33 from 12 innings for Yorkshire and also failed to get a big score in either of innings of the only warm-up match India played ahead of the Test.

However, speaking to the media on the eve of the first Test against England at Edgbaston, vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane made a public defence of his poor form Pujara as well as Shikhar Dhawan’s.

“We are not worried at all, because both are really quality batsmen,” Rahane said. “It just takes one good innings to get into your rhythm. We all back them.”

At the toss on Wednesday, while Dhawan kept his spot despite a pair in the warm-up game, skipper Virat Kohli announced that Cheteshwar Pujara had been replaced by KL Rahul. Was the writing always on the wall when Rahul batted No.3 in the Test against Afghanistan in June and Pujara came in at 4? Those who have followed the Indian team under Kohli’s captaincy, though he wasn’t part of that match with an injury, would have known that this was a test of Rahul the No.3 batsman more than anything.

Strangely enough, Pujara — the man often equated with the great Rahul Dravid — is yet to be completely certain of a spot in the team after 58 Tests, 4531 runs at an average of 50.34 with 14 hundreds. So, for all the quality knocks he has played, be it the comeback 100 as an opener in the third Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo or the pain-staking yet match-winning 50 off 179 balls in the Johannesburg Test against South Africa, Pujara has always been one step away from being dropped.

While this Indian team management hasn’t exactly been forthcoming in the reasons for the decision regarding team selection, the general belief has always been that Pujara doesn’t fit into the ‘aggressive’ scheme of things that Kohli feels is a must to win matches. This Indian team has time and again spoken about playing a ‘fearless’ brand of cricket and backing current form over past laurels.

The same reason why Rahane was dropped for Rohit Sharma in the first two Test against South Africa earlier in the year. Yes, Rahane did make a comeback and won India the third Test, but then, his strike-rate has never been a cause for concern, even if his performances on Indian soil in the last year were mediocre.

Interestingly, speaking before the Test tour of England, Pujara did make it clear that his style of batting wasn’t a worry. “When it comes to my batting or my position, I don't need to fear anyone else or anything,” he told ESPNCricinfo. “I have proved that I am worthy enough to be part of the Indian team. And I have performed enough in 2017-18. I obviously deserve my place. I have offered enough to the team. My team-mates and team management have acknowledged that, so there is no pressure.”

However, the first casualty when the Indian team management decided to bring Rahul into the team was Pujara.

In fact, Pujara’s selection woes aren’t just a factor of the leadership of Kohli and Shastri. He has been in-and-out since making his debut back in 2010 when he made an attractive 72 against Australia in Bengaluru. It wasn’t enough to earn him a spot in the series against New Zealand that followed.

Ignored for the first Test against South Africa, he was once again dropped after poor shows in the second and third Test. What followed was days of frustration combined with hardwork in domestic cricket even as the senior team played Tests against West Indies, England, West Indies and Australia. Picked for the New Zealand series, he hit 159 in the first Test.

In the following series against England, Pujara hit his first double hundred in Test cricket. He brought up his second double in the very next series against Australia. Things looked hunky and dory all of 2013 and 2014 before the axe fell on him again under new Test skipper Kohli in the fourth Test of the series in Australia.

Rohit Sharma was again the beneficiary as the team management decided to bring in someone who was considered more aggressive and could keep the scoreboard ticking over. Sharma reposed the faith with scores of 53 and 39. Pujara was overlooked for the Bangaldesh Test — Kohli’s first assignment after MS Dhoni’s retirement from the longest format — and the first two Tests against Sri Lanka. As always, Pujara answered the critics with an unbeaten century as opener when he was recalled for the third.

However, a couple of poor outings in West Indies once again saw Rohit Sharma drafted into the eleven for the third Test in the Caribbean and Pujara warming the bench. This is when voices against his scoring rate was at its peak. Yet, Pujara was back in the mix for the next home series against New Zealand.

In fact, then coach Anil Kumble nipped them in the bud, in Kolkata, when he said: “He is a very important cog in our team and we have seen his contribution over the years. Even in the last Test match (against New Zealand in Kanpur) we saw the importance of his contribution to the team's cause.

“So, I don't see any pressure on anyone in this team. The beauty about this squad is that there is hardly any pressure on anyone. Yes there are roles and responsibilities. But there is no pressure.”

After the Kumble verdict, Pujara was a permanent fixture in the squad against England, Bangladesh, Australia, Sri Lanka and South Africa before the deadly axe once again fell on the man on the morning of the first Test in Edgbaston on Wednesday. The duration this time round? Only time will tell.
First Published: August 2, 2018, 3:01 PM IST

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