Pujara and Kohli signal the start of a new era in Indian cricket

Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli took on the mantle in fine style and dazzled the stage. It was a performance that delivered promise and presented hope for a brighter morrow in the wake of the two legends walking into sunset © AFP

Nishad Pai Vaidya reviews Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli’s performance against New Zealand on the first day of the Hyderabad Test and explains what it promises for the future.

 

 

As the day dawned at Hyderabad, Indian cricket entered unfamiliar territory – one where the ever-dependable Rahul Dravid and the graceful touch of VVS Laxman wouldn’t grace the field of play.  The Indian fan viewed the new start with a bit of scepticism – a feeling of uncertainty with two messiahs of the famed middle-order gone. However, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli took on the mantle in fine style and dazzled the stage. It was a performance that delivered promise and presented hope for a brighter morrow in the wake of the two legends walking into sunset.

 

A painful wait has finally come to an end as Pujara’s unbeaten hundred sparkled at Hyderabad. Since his early days, the Saurashtra batsman has been a run-machine and was earmarked for prolific success at the highest level. With the old guard still going firm during the last few years, Pujara had to bide his time and settle for a few opportunities. The match-winning fifty on Test debut announced his arrival, but two testing outings in South Africa and a long lay-off due to injury stunted his growth. Due to that injury, Pujara missed the tours to West Indies, England and Australia last year.

If one is to look at the records of some of India’s modern greats, they have taken their time to notch their maiden Test tons. Sachin Tendulkar (nine matches), Rahul Dravid (nine matches) and VVS Laxman (17 matches) took longer than expected to record their first three-figure score. On the other hand, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly managed to do it on their maiden outing. Pujara has taken only four Tests – far lesser than some of the above-mentioned greats – but the wait in terms of time has been longer as Indian fans would have waited for this domestic giant to arrive on the biggest stage.

In an interview to CricketCountry last week, Pujara had echoed concerns over being compared to Dravid even though people spoke about him as the natural successor. The hundred would have fuelled further comparisons and one can be assured that Pujara has a good head on his shoulders to thwart the distractions. At this critical stage, it is but natural that people are looking for a Dravid-like figure to hold the team, but as Pujara mentioned, his job is to go out there and deliver his best for the country.

The most striking feature of Pujara’s batting was his immaculate balance and still head. He is technically very sound and suited to the number three role. His footwork is quick and can make the late adjustments to tackle surprises. His play on the backfoot was delightful as he shifted his balance very well. When he executed the cut, the bat met the ball right under his eyes. While there was some element of strength in his back-foot play, his shots off the front foot were all about touch and timing. He would merely caress the ball with the straight bat and it would travel to the boundary.


Virat Kohli’s contrasting approach

At the other end, there was the contrasting approach of Kohli. As one of the commentators mentioned, Kohli packs a punch in the middle as his style of play is more combative whereas Pujara is more gritty and works hard during his stay in the middle. A player like Pujara may score at a similar rate, but Kohli’s contributions can have a more psychologically damaging effect on the opposition. It was a treat to watch them bat in tandem as Generation Next presented hope that the transition post the Dravid-Laxman retirements may not be as tough as previously anticipated.

A year or two ago, Pujara was firmly ahead of Kohli in the pecking order until that fateful injury came his way. Kohli’s gutsy performance in Australia has done wonders to his confidence and that has rubbed off on him in subsequent games. When compared, Pujara has better prospects for Test cricket in all respects and he could have been miles ahead of Kohli had luck been with him. Nevertheless, these are all ifs and buts – India have to look forward.

Kohli’s dismissal cut short a promising innings and that would serve as a good lesson for him. He unnecessarily slashed at a ball outside off-stump and it carried comfortably to the slip fielder. In one-day cricket, he may get away with such strokes, but he can ill-afford such lapses of concentration in Tests. In contrast, Pujara showed a monk-like temperament and great discipline in leaving balls outside the off-stump. There were a few that he did dispatch to the boundaries, but comfortably saw off the more threatening ones. One wouldn’t want to tweak Kohli’s style of play, but a greater discipline around the off-stump would certainly do him a world of good.

While one may laud Pujara and Kohli’s efforts, one mustn’t go too far ahead and say that India are ready to move on from Laxman and Dravid’s retirements. Undoubtedly it is a good start, but they have to raise the bar with each passing game and seamlessly fit into the scheme of things. They not only have to be consistent, but have to be prolific – something similar to what Dravid and Tendulkar did in their younger days. It is a build-up to the crucial foreign tours that lie ahead and their growth during the home season would have a lot of bearing on India’s fortunes on those sojourns.

(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 at   http://twitter.com/nishad_44 )