Virat Kohli redeemed himself in England as a master batsman in the 2018 series after his horror run in 2014. In that context, the current tour of England is an excellent opportunity for Kohli’s deputy Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara to assert their batting credentials in the challenging conditions of England. Incidentally, both Rahane (29.26) and Pujara (29.41) have got almost identical averages with one hundred each in England after having toured there twice since 2014.
The five Test matches against the hosts England from July to September besides the high-voltage World Test Championship final against New Zealand this month is undoubtedly going to be one of the stiffest challenges for two of the senior middle-order batsmen of the current Indian team. At different times, both Rahane and Pujara have to go through the unfair comparison with the legend Rahul Dravid who set a unique benchmark for showing incredible assurance and plenty of runs in overseas conditions.
Of course, to their credits, Rahane and Pujara have carved their own niche and are no longer burdened with the mighty Dravid comparison. So much so that the 33 year old Pujara is all set to be counted among India’s modern greats in the red ball format. However, the same can’t be said about another 33 year old batsman like Rahane . And, that is really baffling.
An interesting pattern emerges in this journey.
Rahane like the proverbial hare embarked on his Test career in awesome fashion as the most impactful batsman on a difficult tour of South Africa in the 2013 series. He soared high with 8 tons in his first 32 matches which were played in his first three years of Test cricket. Incredibly, 5 hundreds out of those eight were made in conditions as diverse as you can imagine. From Wellington to Lord’s and from Melbourne to Kingston. A century was scored in Colombo as well while he missed a ton in Durban by four runs and in Fatullah (Bangladesh) by two runs.
Undoubtedly, that was the golden phase of Rahane’s career where he even surpassed Kohli in away matches. Pujara on the other hand made his debut in 2010 and by 2015; he also played 32 matches in his first five years of international cricket. He scored 7 centuries but a majority of them (5) were scored on the Indian pitches. Clearly, Rahane was a more accomplished batsman than Pujara until then.
Then came the turnaround by Pujara in the second half of the decade.
While in England, if both Rahane and Pujara have got middling numbers, the Mumbaikar has better numbers in countries like South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand than the man from Rajkot. Then what is the missing link in Rahane’s journey in Test cricket, you may just be wondering? It is the lack of an exceptional series which could define his greatness without any question. If Pujara was the new Wall in Australia in the historic 2018 series where he got 521 runs, he again played a pivotal role in repeating India’s success in even more difficult assignment of the same Australia earlier this year. Pujara may not have managed to score five hundred plus but his tally was just three short of Rishabh Pant who was India’s most successful batter in 2021.
This firmly established Pujara as a very reliable and even match-winning batsman with a contrasting style of play. Oddly, Rahane has had played match winnings knocks against fantastic bowling attacks in South Africa, England, Australia but he doesn’t have a career-defining series like Pujara as yet in his career.
Make hay while the sun shines
Another aspect of Pujara’s batting which has provided him distinct edge and has put him ahead of Rahane in Test cricket is his ability to score heavily at home. Rahane’s average in India is 36.47 whereas Pujara’s 56.31 is as good as anyone from India. This difference of nearly twenty runs per innings has its impact when someone tries to assess these two batsmen.
A veteran of now 85 Tests, Pujara has got 18 hundreds. Only six Indians are ahead of him in terms of the centuries and those are all-time greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid, Sunil Gavaskar and Kohli. Surpassing Mohammad Azharuddin’s 22 tons doesn’t appear to be a daunting task which may eventually cement his place as an all-time great in Indian Test history.
Comparatively, Rahane has got a dozen tons after playing 73 matches. If Pujara’s career average is around 47, Rahane has barely managed to keep his average above 40. If anything, Rahane desperately needs a couple of awe-inspiring series where he could make-up for those lost hundreds so that his average can also improve. Or is it going to end the same way as it did for Sourav Ganguly who was Dravid’s contemporary. The former captains debuted together and Ganguly had back to back hundreds in his first two matches and yet he finished with just 16 tons in Test matches. For those who may have forgotten, Dravid scored 36 centuries which is just second to Tendulkar.
Not all is lost for Rahane
The likes of Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar also finished with Test averages around 42 like Ganguly. So, Rahane cannot be certainly dismissed as an average batsman even if his overall numbers are not as sparkling. If Rahane can re-discover himself on this England tour then only he can think of entering the prestigious 100-Test club for his country which doesn’t look improbable for Pujara.
Over the years, Pujara and Rahane have shared wonderful days on the field and memorable evenings off the field as they are great friends who have similar kind of temperaments and demeanour. Chasing Kohli for the pursuit of greatness can be a huge burden for anyone but emulating his contemporary team-mate like Pujara could perhaps be the right way to reverse the clock for Rahane? Who knows this hare may still wake-up in time and could still finish the race as an equal!