India move into unfamiliar territory – one where the dependable Rahul Dravid wouldn’t walk in at three. Cheteshwar Pujara seems to be the front-runner for the No 3 spot, but given Virat Kohli’s phenomenal progress, can he be ruled out of contention for the crucial slot? Nishad Pai Vaidya examines the two players and attempts to determine who best fits into the void left by the great Dravid.
In the year 1996, a player with an indomitable spirit and determination walked into international cricket with a mission to succeed. As years went by, he became the immovable rock of the batting order and provided it with solidity. While his compatriots went about dazzling the stage with flamboyant displays of batting, Rahul Dravid’s grit and determination provided the foundation and the confidence. With his retirement recently, India move into uncharted territory – where the ever-dependable figure wouldn’t walk out at the fall of the first wicket.
For the Indian fans that followed the game during the last two decades, Sachin Tendulkar is the ultimate figure who is idolised for his superhuman feats. Through all that, Dravid’s went about his job with minimal fuss and maximum precision. He had an air of dependability – something that assured the fans that the Indian batting wasn’t a miserable wreck at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket. The word “Dravid” made its way through into common parlance and was used for someone who exuded stability and unwavering focus.
It is now that India will look to someone with a similar aura and to provide the same confidence and assurance. The struggles during the tours to England and Australia ended a honeymoon for Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men. At this critical juncture, it is imperative that India find that suitable replacement for Dravid as the once-formidable batting line-up has to rediscover its lost touch. In the upcoming Test series against New Zealand, India would take a small peek into the future. But, the question is: Who would bat at No 3?
In all likelihood, Cheteshwar Pujara would be the one to replace Dravid at No 3. Over the years, he has built up a fantastic reputation with phenomenal consistency at the domestic level and for India A. During the recent A tour to the Caribbean, he stood out with consistent returns even as others struggled to make a mark. It isn’t just the number of runs he has scored, but also the situations in which they have come in. His 96 not out against West Indies A earlier this year that helped clinch a hard-fought victory for India A is one example of his ability.
Pujara’s cool and calm temperament is also a factor that puts him in front. On Test debut, he was promoted to No 3 during a run-chase and set-up a win for India with a dazzling knock. If one looks at all the aspects of his game and character, he is the one who comes closest to Dravid. He has a balanced head on his shoulders and knows what is expected off him. As he told CricketCountry in an exclusive interview a few days ago, “It gives me a good feeling that I have something in me and people appreciate me and make such comparisons. I’ll do my best, but it is almost impossible to replace Dravid. I want to focus on what I can do best for the country.”
While Pujara’s selection seems to have come as a direct replacement for Dravid, one cannot rule out Virat Kohli as a possible No 3. Kohli’s growth into a prolific batsman at the international stage has been phenomenal as he has touched an unprecedented purple patch in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). Some of his knocks, such as the one against Sri Lanka at Hobart and the remarkable hundred against Pakistan at the Asia Cup, were ample evidence that he could guide the innings with a balance of sensibility and exuberance. However, his maiden Test hundred – which came in Australia even as the bigger names faltered – was probably the most encouraging sign and holds him in good stead. There were a few concerns surrounding his game prior to that display and he has responded with a bang.
Given Kohli’s remarkable one-day form and the good performance in the Test series in Australia, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he is considered for the spot in question. The team management may have to weigh in various factors before making that call. If Kohli is asked to bat at No 3, Pujara would have to drop down to No 6.
Pujara fits into the Dravid-mould perfectly, but Kohli’s form may provide other arguments. It was Kohli who was initially talked about as the next Dravid, but recent knocks have invoked comparisons with Tendulkar. The maestro doesn’t have much time at the international stage and his retirement would leave a huge void at No 4. Kohli’s style of play and the free-flowing, flamboyant approach may fit into the Tendulkar mould – making him a possible No 4 for the future.
For years, the numbers three and four have contributed tons of runs for India. The man at three was a solid bat with stoic defense, whereas the one at four is a superstar with all batting records to his name. Together, they have the highest runs as a pair and the most hundred partnerships in Tests. It was a combination that worked wonders as the two contrasting styles added tremendous punch to the Indian line-up.
Keeping this in perspective, it would make sense for India to groom Pujara and Kohli to bat at No 3 and No 4 respectively. As it did with the two greats, it may help build a good understanding and may be a good move in the long run. To put the nightmare behind them and to kick-start a new era, India have to try something different. In the past, a number of great players have pushed down the order in the twilights of their careers to give youngsters a chance at the top and mentor them for the big role.
Will India make that brave call with Tendulkar and VVS Laxman in the Test series against New Zealand?
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He can be followed on Twitter @nishad_44)