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Cheteshwar Pujara needs to be groomed for ODIs ahead of ICC World Cup 2015

Cheteshwar Pujara © AFP
Even if statistics is the only criteria for selection, Cheteshwar Pujara builds himself a strong case © AFP

By Kaushal M

It took only one innings for the world to conclude that Cheteshwar Pujara was here to stay — the fluent and authoritative strokes during his 72 on debut against Australia in 2010 provided enough proof to support that statement. And now, seventeen Tests into his career, he has built a reputation as a solid batsman and has scored 1590 runs at an average of 66.25.

However, there is a danger of him being stereotyped as a Test specialist as he can be an asset in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) as well.  It is that very stereotype that may affect his one-day chances. While fitness issues and the Indian team’s decent showing the recent past may have contributed to him being away from the ODI side, it is time the selectors take a look at him. He has played only two ODIs so far, both on the tour to Zimbabwe last year.

Pujara’s solidity will help India in ODIs

It took Rohit Sharma sixteen deliveries to manage to get bat onto ball while facing a fiery, red-hot, venom-spitting Dale Steyn in the first ODI of the recently concluded tour to South Africa. “Why didn’t Suresh Raina or Yuvraj Singh attend any new year parties? Because they were too afraid of the bouncers” was a joke that went viral following India’s dismal batting performance.

Clearly, it took all but two games for South Africa to expose the sheer lack of solidity in the Indian line-up. Though many may say that it would be unfair to judge an entire team following a solitary nightmarish series, their collective failure in the South African ODIs certainly did ensure that there were plenty of points to ponder about.

In just two matches, Steyn, Morkel, Tsotsobe and Philander shattered the steadily growing confidence that the Indian batting line-up was capable of performing in any conditions and against any opposition. The obvious flaws in their technique were clearer than ever before, and the gaping holes in their defence were painfully visible.

Meanwhile, despite being India’s most technically equipped batsman, Pujara wasn’t included in the squad. While the Indian team was ruffled, bullied, and toyed around with, Pujara, who was actually capable of batting in the challenging conditions of the Rainbow Nation was reduced to watching from the sidelines.

Australia and New Zealand will host the ICC World Cup 2015, and the 2019 edition will be played in England and Wales. In none of these countries are the conditions as batsman friendly as the subcontinent. While 2019 may still be a fair distance away, Oceania in 2015 presents an immediate challenge. To make matters more unsettling, India have to contend with Pakistan and South Africa in the Group Stages — teams which seem to possess the ability of mysteriously unearthing one classy fast bowler after another.

Often, even ordinary bowlers in helpful conditions can accomplish extraordinary feats. The ball bounces, swings and seams on the pitches Down Under, and not even the harshest of critics would dare classify Steyn, Philander or Junaid as ordinary. Also, the performance of most Indian batsmen in Australia has been quite depressing, with MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli being the only ones averaging above 35.

Therefore, if India wants to defend its trophy in 2015, they need to find a way to infuse some solidity, stability, and reliability into the batting line-up. While the Indian top order may currently be quite comfortable facing a new ball at either end, problems could arise in the harsher environments of Australia and New Zealand. India needs batsmen who can weather the initial storm, and emerge unscathed; batsmen who can score at a brisk pace, and still have a water-tight technique.  Everything seems to point in the direction of one man — Pujara. Former India wicketkeeper, Kiran More believes that Pujara’s time has come.

“The selectors will have no choice but to have a look-in of Pujara. He has the simple, uncomplicated technique that Dravid had. I’m not saying which number he can be fitted into, that is for the selectors to decide. Anyway, we’ve an issue with No 4 slot,” the former chairman of selectors said in an interview over two months ago, long before India travelled to South Africa.

Even if statistics is the only criteria for selection, Pujara builds himself a strong case. In 68 List A games, he’s amassed 2947 runs at an average of 54.57 — numbers that are better than many of his counterparts currently in the Indian team. Importantly, he’s remained not out in 14 innings — 20% of the time. He possesses a stubborn will to grind it out in the middle.

While it’s true that as a limited overs player, he is an untested commodity outside the subcontinent, he’s enhanced his reputation as a dependable performer in Test cricket by performing in the alien conditions of South Africa. And Rahul Dravid and Hashim Amla are prime examples of players branded as Test specialists who went on to dominate the ODI arena as well.

Clearly, Pujara’s services would be needed in the World Cup next year. However, it’s only reasonable that he must be given a fair share of games, and must be groomed for ODI cricket before actually featuring in a big tournament. Considering that New Zealand is the co-host of the World Cup, it is unfortunate that he has not been selected for the ODI series against them in their own backyard, starting next week. His inclusion would have given him valuable experience, and would also have provided the selectors with greater clarity about the approach they need to adopt while picking the squad for the World Cup.

Pujara may not suit the ideal definition of an ODI batsman — he may not be able to brutally blunt the opposition, like a David Warner or a Chris Gayle. He may not be able to alter the very course of a game in half an hour, like a Kohli or a Dhoni. He may not be the perfect batsman in every possible situation, like an AB De Villiers.

What Pujara would bring to the table, however, is an aura of calmness, a sense of solidity, an air of reliability and an overwhelming promise of determination. It’s all any captain could ask for, and will be dearly needed in Australia and New Zealand.

(Kaushal M is a Bangalore-based software engineer. When he’s not busy watching or playing the game, he likes to do his bit to make his city a better place to live in. He can be followed on Twitter at @kaushal_m_01)

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