Cheteshwar Pujara: Slave to India’s success

Indian cricketer Cheteshwar Pujara plays

Cheteshwar Pujara

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A.A. Milne

Fantastical; a better word could not have been crafted to describe Cheteshwar Pujara’s exploits as a cricketer (unless ‘Husseyesque’ was added to the dictionary last night). One look at his records will tell you that hitting the brakes is an art Pujara was never taught. His fifties are invariably converted to hundreds, which are compounded further.

Prolific is another one that comes to mind. But it feels almost erroneous to equate him to numerous prolific accumulators – domestic bullies – at the first-class level. No, Pujara sped past the town of ‘moderately consistent’ several miles ago. That is down to his irrevocably strong temperament.

The number of times, in interviews, that he has been asked how it feels to be on the sidelines over the last few seasons is ever-creeping towards his batting average itself. When he was first asked the question, the answer was quite simple. The veterans were still at the helm: The Emperor, the Poet and the Warrior, under the leadership of the dynamic new captain.

Pujara was happy to acknowledge the truth and watch from the sidelines. And although he grabbed his first opportunity nicely when promoted above Rahul Dravid, it was a nervous follow up series in South Africa. Again, he found himself outside.

When the guard DID change, for the most part of it, he saw his contemporaries being drafted into Test cricket on the basis of their success in the shorter forms. The answer had to change. But there was no bitterness. Challenging himself and proving his credibility to his own conscience, he said, was the most important thing.

And in the months that followed his initial taste of international cricket, he did exactly that. He continued piling on the runs in the manner he knew and the only barrier between him and some of the sturdiest domestic records was that his team in Saurashtra didn’t possess a regular knockout-stage ticket.

And so, Pujara left the management little room to overlook him. With the tough half of his job completed, he then continued to live by his USP. It has been ten Test matches against three oppositions since then, and Pujara has already scored two double hundreds out of four centuries.

In between, he ruined Stuart Binny’s plans of restricting Saurashtra for 150 in the Ranji Trophy quarter-final encounter against Karnataka by scoring double the number on his own; he was rewarded the very next day with a call-up to the one-day squad for the home series against England. Unfortunately, the only thing that came out of it was a fresh batch of interviews.

Seven months later, Pujara is yet to make his debut in the blue jersey. The situation isn’t too different from his days on the sidelines of the Test team, however.

For one, MS Dhoni remains unchallenged as a captain. Under him is India’s greatest ODI team of all time and, needless to say, a team that needs little change. As holders of both the World Cup and the Champions Trophy title, Dhoni’s squad has its own established personnel and agenda. It is a remarkable side, even in the absence of players of the calibre of Yuvraj Singh, the flamboyance of Virender Sehwag and the steel of Gautam Gambhir.

India v Australia - Second Test: Day Five

It is a side however, that the Board agreed would not be required at full strength on the tour to Zimbabwe. Few would argue against it. Which is why it is astounding that Pujara hasn’t found a debut in this series yet, leaving many wondering what Indian cricket’s plan for him is as far as the shorter format goes.

He will almost certainly feature in the fourth ODI. The bigger question, though, is whether he is in India’s plans for the 2015 World Cup or will purely be tried because the management feel obliged to.  To their credit, the World Cup plan looks the more likely one and regardless of the delay in his inclusion, it’s facilitation will barely do any harm to anyone involved.

Rahul Dravid shredded the tag of “Test specialist” in his time and displayed the privileges that came with his combination of stoical technique and mind.

In fact, he has continued to do so until recently. But there is no such thing as completely convincing the public; and more so in this generation of regular six-an-over chases. There will be sections that would prefer the flashy, free-flowing Rahane up front over Pujara, and quite a multitude would choose any of Rayudu, Vijay, Karthik and Raina over Pujara in the middle of an ODI innings.

Is it warranted, however? The notion that the high-elbow strokes no longer have a place in limited-overs cricket.

If it is, Pujara’s List A average of 56.97 wouldn’t be providing too much support. Incidentally, it’s the second highest limited-overs average of all time – Michael Bevan being the only person higher on the list.

Thankfully, the people in charge of Pujara’s career aren’t the many sections of the public. But does the management really fancy Pujara as a long-term servant to Indian one-day cricket?

On a thorough dissection of the strongest XI that India can put out in an ODI at the moment, Pujara would barely fit into the opening position currently administrated by Rohit Sharma. The only other temporary fixture in that team is Dinesh Karthik and Ambati Rayudu would be well within his rights to claim that spot. Would Dhoni be prepared then, to drop Rohit Sharma down the order to accommodate Pujara at the top?

I could bet all of BCCI’s treasury that he wouldn’t. There isn’t any reason to do fiddle with a successful combination – especially not one with a consistent Rohit Sharma!

On ability, Pujara deserves a regular place in the team. However, it is ability without which the team has succeeded anyway.

Putting all of it in perspective – with the long list of players waiting to have a go and an even longer one trying to find their way back into the team – Pujara might well end up victim to the “Test specialist” portfolio for a few years.

The fact that the most established batting line-up took to the field in the first three ODIs against the No. 10 team in the world indicated that Pujara is only considered a back-up. Which is a pity. By no measure would Cheteshwar Pujara, in any part of the world, be a back-up player. He is a slave to his own nation’s dominance, at the moment. But so was Michael Hussey, not so long ago.

A.A. Milne’s quote could not be better fitting than in Pujara’s case. You can’t help but believe that he will get there some day – perseverance is a trait gifted to him by nature. Until then, he will pile them on.

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