By Nishad Pai Vaidya
On October 5, 2010, the India-Australia Test at Mohali neared an epic finale with both teams fighting for victory. As India made heavy-weather of a run-chase of 216, all hopes rested on the shoulders of VVS Laxman – the man who had tormented Australia in numerous unforgettable contests. At 124 for eight, India were down and seemingly out of the contest. But that is when the magic started! Laxman counter-attacked Australia, while Ishant Sharma was stoic in defence at the other end. Even when Ishant fell with India on the brink, Laxman continued the battle with Pragya Ojha and scripted a fantastic win.
A similar scenario unfolded in a different setting on June 5, 2012 as West Indies A and India A clashed in a hard-fought battle at the Kensington Oval, Barbados. It required a captain’s innings from Cheteshwar Pujara to trump the West Indian challenge – one that defended a paltry total of 186 with fight and spirit. Jason Holder’s fiver reduced India to 115 for eight and it was left to Pujara to do a Laxman. His unbeaten 96 rallied India A home and started their tour to the Caribbean on a winning note. The whole drama surrounding the win has invoked comparisons between Pujara’s knock and Laxman’s sterling efforts.
Pujara made his Test debut in the game after the Mohali heart-stopper and, ironically, had come in place of Laxman. It was a fantastic debut as his attacking 72 in the second innings helped India chase down Australia’s challenge of 207. What was heartening was that the team management showed tremendous faith in him and promoted him to No 3 on debut in an important run chase. Rahul Dravid, the senior pro, had to make way for this promising youngster who had sparkled at the domestic level and was eager to prove his credentials in international cricket.
Since then, luck hasn’t been on Pujara’s side as he was benched soon after his Test debut. His next two games came were against South Africa where he batted on a seaming track at Durban and ran into an in-form Dale Steyn at Cape Town. Despite those performances, the selectors would have kept him in their plans as his domestic performances and the brilliant knock on debut was ample evidence of his talent. However, a knee injury during the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2011 kept him out of the game for a long time and he only made a comeback in November 2011.
With Dravid calling it a day and Laxman in a spot of bother, Pujara would be the top contender to take one of the two spots. Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane may have been a part of India’s Test squad to Australia and have sparkled in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), but Pujara’s superior technical ability is his advantage. In fact, the solidity he shows is very reminiscent of Dravid.
Time and again, Pujara has proved his talent - be it at the domestic level or for the A team. When India A toured England in 2010, Pujara was the top run-scorer as he sparkled with big knocks. More than the numbers, what is important is that he has shown the ability to anchor the innings on a consistent basis. Saurashtra have benefited tremendously from his gutsy knocks as he has won them several games.
While Pujara has been ear-marked as the possible successor to Dravid in the Test line-up, it would be a mistake to label him as a Test-specialist. His domestic one-day record is impressive and reflects the fact that he can occupy the crease and score runs. He may not be as flashy as a Rohit or fluent as a Rahane, but can certainly be an asset in the one-day format.
The competition for him to get into the one-day line-up would be even more intense. Rohit and Rahane are way ahead of him in the pecking order and Manoj Tiwary is waiting in the wings. Virat Kohli has firmly established himself in the ODI setup and is being groomed in a leadership role. Suresh Raina also remains a vital part of the one-day squad. In the midst of these names, Pujara has a tough task and would have to perform brilliantly in his one-day outings to stake a claim for a berth in the side.
Temperamentally, Pujara seems to be well-balanced and in control of his emotions. The fact that he has been handed the leadership for the tour to the Caribbean tour ahead of the likes of Rohit, Rahane and Tiwary speaks volumes of the trust the selectors have in him. Before leaving for the tour, Pujara revealed that he had done his homework and taken advice from AB de Villiers. This shows that he is a thinking cricketer who can be meticulous with his planning. As a leader, he had to take the initiative to set the ball rolling and he did it during a busy tournament like the IPL. Thus, if he replicates his domestic success at the international level, he may be a strong candidate to lead India some day.
For now, Pujara has to maintain the consistency throughout the ongoing sojourn. There is an intense competition in the side and he has taken the lead with a brilliant performance in the first game. Rohit too did well with a crucial knock in the first innings and wickets in both innings. Tiwary played his part in stabilizing the Indian innings in the first essay. However, Rahane’s twin failures may put him under some pressure before the next game. The race is only getting more interesting. The ultimate prize would be the Indian Test cap.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)