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What do Indian selectors have against Cheteshwar Pujara?

If we are to go by the numbers, Cheteshwar Pujara should have played more ODIs so far than both Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma © Getty Images
If we are to go by the numbers, Cheteshwar Pujara should have played more ODIs so far than both Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma © Getty Images

One would have expected Cheteshwar Pujara to play in India’s inconsequential Asia Cup match against Afghanistan. Abhishek Mukherjee questions the queer strategy adopted by Indian selectors.

India had beaten Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 2012; they had, however, missed out on a berth in the final because of their defeat against Bangladesh. They have done the exact opposite in this version of Asia Cup and have managed to come up with the same result.

In Virat Kohli’s defense, it must be admitted that he was a young captain, never shy to experiment; he was defied victory in two tight encounters thanks to a Kumar Sangakkara hundred and a Shahid Afridi blitz — either of which could have been the acid test for any captain in the world.

The question, however, remains: Why has Cheteshwar Pujara been left out of the matches?

The obvious question the selectors can ask in their defense is: who would he replace? Of course, Kohli (and once he is back, MS Dhoni) will have to be there in the XI. But what about the others?

Despite his explosive batting on subcontinent tracks, Suresh Raina has been dropped from the squad due to his obvious weakness against the short ball; and Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, and Yuvraj Singh are out of contention. When the squad for the ongoing Asia Cup was picked, the selectors must have picked the men with the upcoming ICC World Cup 2015 in mind. Obviously, Pujara was one of them.

Strangely, Pujara was not selected for any of the matches. One may understand if Kohli had an XI in mind going into the tournament, but with the batting not performing the way they should have against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, one might have thought that Pujara would have got an opportunity.

Who are the men, then, who have been keeping Pujara out?

Asia Cup 2013-14 (first three matches)

 Player

R Ave

SR

Shikhar Dhawan

132

44.00

77.2

Rohit Sharma

90

30.00

78.3

Dinesh Karthik

29

14.50

56.9

Ambati Rayudu

85

42.50

85.0

Ajinkya Rahane

118

39.33

78.3

But how did these men perform in the Indian winter of 2013-14 on the twin tours of South Africa and New Zealand (Karthik does not feature here, but Raina does)?

South Africa and New Zealand tours

 Player R Ave SR
Shikhar Dhawan

93

15.50

68.4

Rohit Sharma

182

26.00

67.2

Suresh Raina

134

26.80

87.6

Ambati Rayudu

57

28.50

58.2

Ajinkya Rahane

59

9.83

56.7

Let us consider the men. Dhawan had delivered the goods in the ICC Champions Trophy 2013, and has pulled off a couple of excellent innings in the Tests against New Zealand, which were definitely encouraging. Rahane has done a decent job in the Tests and had looked decent.

© AFP
Given all his talent, he still averages worse than Suresh Raina in overseas conditions © AFP

Rohit, of course, has been the most serious contender for the Most-Talented-Batsman-Since-Sachin-Tendulkar-Who-Delivers-Once-in-Ten-Matches category, and his selection has almost always been based on potential than performance. For all his talent, Rohit’s career numbers read 3,409 runs at 35.51 and a strike rate of 78.6.

Overseas, however, Rohit’s record accumulates to 2,239 runs at 29.46 and a strike rate of 73.0. The corresponding overseas numbers for Raina read 2,858 at 33.62 at an excellent strike rate of 93.1. Given all Raina’s weaknesses against short bowling, has Rohit done enough to merit a selection over Raina?

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Rohit (at a shade below 27 years, and nine months older than Pujara) is one of the youngsters who will shape Indian cricket. What about Ambati Rayudu and Karthik, then? Both men being in the side defies logic. Unlike Dhoni, Karthik certainly does not get into the side for batting alone; two of his missed stumpings, one in each match, has cost India a berth in the final; and Rayudu can keep wickets.

What is Karthik (who had turned substantially richer last month) doing in the side, then? Or even Rayudu? What are the numbers on whose basis these men are being selected ahead of Pujara? Let us check List A matches to have a closer look:

List A matches

 Player R Ave SR
Shikhar Dhawan

5,651

46.31

NA
Rohit Sharma

5,581

36.71

NA
Dinesh Karthik

4,316

35.96

91.0

Ambati Rayudu

2,260

36.45

NA
Ajinkya Rahane

2,971

34.54

NA
Suresh Raina

6,618

36.36

93.1

Cheteshwar Pujara

2,947

54.57

NA

The only thing that separates Pujara from the crowd is a 50+ average. Dhawan seems the only one remotely close, and even he is substantially behind the others.

What about all batsmen, then?

List A matches (all: 2,000+ runs, 50+ average)

 Player R Ave SR
Michael Bevan

15,103

57.86

Cheteshwar Pujara

2,947

54.57

 
Gary Balance

2,601

52.43

91.0

Saleem Elahi

6,277

52.30

MS Dhoni

10,049

52.06

 
Virat Kohli

7,076

51.27

90.7

James Taylor

3,401

50.76

82.0

Graeme Pollock

4,656

50.06

Do the selectors even realise what they are missing out on? It is not that Pujara cannot handle hostile conditions: his Test numbers show that he is as good a batsman as any other under testing conditions. India is keeping the man with the second-best batting average in List A cricket out of ODIs without a single reason.

Why does the team need Pujara? The big team scores have almost always been based on big individual scores. Let us look at the highest scores by sides in ODIs (barring performances against minnows):

Top team innings

Team Score Opposition Top scorer

Runs

South Africa 438/9 Australia Herschelle Gibbs

175

Australia 434/4 South Africa Ricky Ponting

164

India 418/5 West Indies Virender Sehwag

219

India 414/7 Sri Lanka Virender Sehwag

146

Sri Lanka 411/8 India Tillakaratne Dilshan

160

India 401/3 South Africa Sachin Tendulkar

200*

These are mere examples, but we can always scroll down the list for more. As is evident, in all cases the fulcrum has been one batsman with a big innings around whom the scores have been built. The question remains: barring Kohli, does the current Indian top-order have a single batsman who can deliver big scores on a consistent basis (remember the days of Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar)? If not, is there a man at domestic level who can do the same?

A simple look at the numbers will tell us three things:

- The India team needs Pujara, especially in overseas matches;

- Barring Dhoni and Kohli there is not a batsman who has done anything to keep Pujara out of the squad;

- The selectors are either oblivious of the two points, or they are under pressure of some sort to act otherwise.

The fans had been pondering on all the aspects mentioned above, but there had been no response from the men who matter till Sunil Gavaskar spoke out in an interview with Star Sports: “Are you worried that Cheteshwar Pujara will score runs so that your favourites who are not consistent might have to make way?”

Truer words have seldom been spoken. Even the least observant follower of Indian cricket must have spotted a trend by now: the selection policy for the Indian cricket team has not been based on merit or on-field performances. Given the feeble bowling attack, if India dreams of doing anything of note in the upcoming World Cup, there should be a change of some sort in the selection policies.

If that does not happen, the practice of selecting worthy candidates for tours and benching them throughout tournaments can at least be done with. Pujara is too good a batsman to build up frequent flier miles on. He has really not caused any harm to the selectors.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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