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Cheteshwar Pujara deserves to don blue Indian flannels

Despite being one of India’s finest in Tests, Cheteshwar Pujara hardly makes the cut in ODIs. He has played only two ODIs for India © AFP
Despite being one of India’s finest in Tests, Cheteshwar Pujara hardly makes the cut in ODIs. He has played only two ODIs for India © AFP

By Karthik Parimal

Dominance at home has become commonplace in cricket since the last couple of years, but India’s non-performance on overseas turfs has nevertheless been glaring. Taking nothing away from New Zealand’s sanguine approach, the fact remains that they’re nowhere as formidable as an English or Australian unit at home. Relatively weaker teams have managed to subdue them in limited-over games during recent times, yet, India — ranked No 1 in the format before the commencement of the tour — looked insipid in a way that has projected their opponents on a higher pedestal. The Kiwis are good, but are they as imposing as keeping a top-ranked side away from a win for this long?

Bowling has, no doubt, been India’s Achilles’ heel, but the batting, often reliable, has of late started to present a fresh set of conundrums. Shikhar Dhawan who had looked impregnable at home, has scored less than 85 runs in his last five away ODI innings. Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma have painted a similar-looking picture, too, although the latter clawed back into runs in the third and fourth matches. A question mark, however, hovers over the sustenance of that form. Ajinkya Rahane, continually floated in the order, is yet to find a foothold. Barring Virat Kohli, it’s safe to say that none of the Indian batsmen have been sensibly assertive.

The seven players who constitute India’s batting line-up are all aggressive, and their means to accumulate runs has paid rich dividends on placid tracks, which is not a wrong thing, but most of them have been found wanting on the lively pitches that greet them in England, Australia, South Africa and now, to an extent, New Zealand. Patience, which is a prerequisite on such tours, seems to be eluding them. As if to show they aren’t intimidated by short-pitched deliveries, the hook has been unfurled at the drop of the hat. Like Sunil Gavaskar aptly asked from the confines of the commentary box, why play the shot when it’s not a natural in your repertoire?

What’s perplexing, then, is the fact that India has in its armoury a potent batsman capable of thriving on both placid and lively surfaces, of deftly oscillating between caution and aggression, yet, he’s regularly excluded from being asked to don the blue flannels. It’s hard to comprehend why Cheteshwar Pujara, despite being one of India’s finest in the sport’s authentic format, hardly makes the cut in the shorter version. He was offered a couple of outings against Zimbabwe and was immediately discarded thereafter, which is hard to fathom considering how the other underperformers are often thrown a rope.

It’s true that a player who doesn’t feature in the eleven of a defeated side is touted as the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle, but Pujara brings with him a sense of security. His watertight technique and unflappable temperament could taper the threat that is a by-product of an all-attacking line-up. It’s not always the boisterous who win matches in a limited-overs fixture; the likes of Hashim Amla, Misbah-ul-Haq and, to pick one from the ongoing series: Kane Williamson, serve as fine examples. The Indians themselves must be aware of the benefit of having a level-headed personality in the top-order, as was gracefully demonstrated by Rahul Dravid for most of the last decade.

Quick runs, and truckloads of them, have become obligatory ever since the advent of the shortest format that is Twenty20. Pujara has showcased his ability to adapt accordingly. As stated in one of my earlier articles, and as highlighted by umpteen other columnists, his domestic records in overs-limit games rank higher than a few of his contemporaries. He has nine hundreds and 18 fifties in 68 List-A games, averaging a healthy 55. Against Madhya Pradesh last year, during an innings of 203, he slammed his last fifty runs off a staggering 17 deliveries. He followed it up with a record 352 against Karnataka, at a strike-rate of 82.43. More recently, he pummelled the world’s best bowling line-up in the Johannesburg Test, scoring the second fifty of his century in just 41 balls. Don’t these statistics make a fine case for a player to be included in the One-Day outfit of any squad?

Pujara’s inclusion could help make clear the role of each player in the side. If he’s asked to cordon off an end until the final leg of the innings is underway, it could allow the others who bat around him to operate more freely during the middle-overs. If need be, Pujara could up the ante. If not, he can drop anchor and hold his end.

The Sandeep Patil-led selection committee has done a commendable job thus far, and although it’s difficult to please everybody, Pujara’s exclusion will be underscored by many keenly observing their tenure. One hopes the powers that be, including MS Dhoni, are open to making changes in the coming months, especially as the 2015 World Cup isn’t far away, and Pujara’s addition can only be a boon. His omission may not yet be a hot topic of debate, for this bilateral series will be forgotten in due course of time, but a less-than-satisfactory performance in a major tournament is sure to make the oversight glaring.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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