By Sudeep Sonawane
Surat, August 13, 2021
Cheteshwar Pujara’s yet another failure in the first innings of the second Test at Lord’s calls for dropping him from the playing XI and changes in India batting order.
The second most important batsman in the Test team after captain Virat Kohli continues to scratch for runs. He scored 9 off 23 balls at Lord’s while Rohit Sharma, Lokesh Rahul and Kohli prospered.
Even if Pujara scores a half century or more in the second innings, coach Ravi Shastri and Kohli would do well to drop him. They could promote Ajinkya Rahane to No 3 and put Hanuma Vihari at No.5 position.
Dropping Pujara from the playing XI is a difficult decision because he has served India well. Nonetheless, a short break would do well for him and the team.
There should be no doubt on Pujara’s ability as a Test batsman. He is successful. His statistics prove how vital he is for the team. He has played 87 Tests and scored 6,283 runs, including 18 centuries (3 double centuries) for a good batting average of 45.86.
In less than two months, Pujara will complete 11 years in Test cricket since his debut in 2010 against Australia in Bengaluru. Almost two years later, on August 23, 2012, he scored his first Test century (159) against New Zealand and, in November, scored his first double century (206) against England in Ahmedabad followed by 135 in Mumbai, in the second Test of that series.
Pujara consolidated his position in Tests within two years and regularly features at number three position, barring a few matches. A slow starter, set in the traditional mould of a Test batsman, Pujara’s approach of risk-free batting, leaving many deliveries and grinding the bowlers soon typecast him as defensive batsman. During the first phase of his career, he fitted well at No.3 with stroke players Sharma, Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and currently Rishab Pant and Ravindra Jadeja to follow.
In the period between 2012 and 2019, Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, Dhoni, Rahane and Sharma – whenever he got a chance in Tests – overshadowed Pujara’s patient plodding. Fans liked him because he brought calmness and assurance through his riskless batting that gradually increased the team’s total.
Early and cheap dismissals of Kohli and Rahane often put pressure on Pujara. On several occasions India failed to chase totals around 250 in the last innings. This has happened too often. Blaming weather and other conditions are just poor excuses. In recent times, Pujara’s scratching for runs has exasperated fans and compelled his captain to remark “the intent in our batting is missing” in media conferences.
Pujara’s form in 2021 is below par and a major concern for the team. He has scored just four half centuries this year. His last, 73, came on February 5 against England in Chennai. Since then he has scores of 15; 21 & 7; 0 & DNB; 17; 8 & 15; 4 & 12 not out. The last four innings were against New Zealand – India lost the Test Championship final in Southampton – and the first Test of this current series. He scored his last Test century (193) against Australia in Sydney in 2019.
The national selectors and cricket board president Saurav Ganguly should worry that India’s premier Test batsman, after Kohli, last scored a century 32 months or more than two and a half year ago.
Knowing the Indian mindset of persisting with heroes, even if they are out of form, Shastri and Kohli are unlikely to drop Pujara. If they persist with him in the third Test, he will be under pressure to perform and stifle India’s prospects.
It is high time they drop Pujara and give Vihari an opportunity. There are other worthy candidates like Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal, Shubham Gill and the flamboyant Suryakumar Yadav.