Filling Rahul Dravid's shoes is no child's play, but when a player slams 150 on the first opportunity to do so, you know he is special.
When Rahul Dravid hung his boots after the fourth Test against Australia at Adelaide in 2012, India had a real problem on their hands. For the most part of 16 years, Dravid had been the pivot around which the Indian batting revolved. But now there was a huge void at the crucial number three position. Was there anybody who had the quality to take Dravid's place?
India's first Test in the post-Dravid era was against New Zealand at home. Batting first, India lost Gautam Gambhir with 49 runs on the board. In strode a youngster, playing in only the fourth match of his career, and what followed was an innings of the highest order – 159 runs off 306 balls, over nearly eight hours, in Dravid-like fashion, without minimum fuss. Cheteshwar Pujara had arrived.
And two matches later, as England came on tour in 2012, he went even higher, hitting a magnificent, unbeaten double-century. That innings showed that he had it in him to be Dravid's successor at number three. The next match saw him hit the three-figure mark again, but for a losing cause as India was defeated comprehensively by England. The series went downhill for him from thereon, as it did for India, who were upset 1-2 by Alastair Cook's men. The way the team's performance was starting to get linked to that of Pujara showed that how important he was for the side.
The Saurashtra batsman hit another double ton against Australia in the following series, in the process becoming the second fastest Indian, after Vinod Kambli, to 1,000 Test runs. If the morning did indeed show the day, Pujara, one knew, was the future of Indian cricket.
However, he hit a bit of a trough thereafter, and except for a couple of centuries and a few fifties here and there, he was finding it difficult to make an impact. By the time India started for the tour of England in 2014, Pujara had already had a string of low scores and was under pressure to deliver. But he had a pretty forgettable tour by his standards, scoring a measly 222 runs in 10 innings.
His indifferent form carried over to the tour of Australia, and after insipid performances in the first three matches, he was dropped for the fourth and final Test at Sydney, as had become inevitable by this time. He was replaced in the team and at number three by Rohit Sharma, who was being billed as the next big thing of Indian cricket, and Pujara's Test career seemed to be in serious jeopardy. Being more of an artisan than an artist, the unassuming Pujara lacked the spunk and flamboyance of a Rohit Sharma or a Virat Kohli, but his greatest strength is that he would get the job done without you even noticing.
However, this strength can turn into a disadvantage too, as his ouster from the team may not make too many people concerned, and there is a slim chance that it would kick up a storm on social media. In short, he could be dispensed with without too many people even noticing.
Rohit scored a fifty in the Sydney Test, but bungled in the next two matches against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Ajinkya Rahane was sent in at number three in the second Test against Sri Lanka and he hit a century. By this time, the team management could have been missing the solidity that Pujara provided, and he was brought in as an opener in the third and final Test against the islanders, and immediately hit a century.
He was back at number three during the home series against South Africa, but did not exactly set the world on fire. Rohit replaced him at number three in the second innings of the fourth Test and could have sent Pujara packing. But Rohit scored a duck and Pujara was again granted a respite.
He was criticised for a painfully slow 46 off 159 balls against West Indies in the second Test at Kington, Jamaica, which combined with only one fifty in the last seven innings made him lose his place in the side for the third Test at Gros Islet.
As things were again starting to look a bit uncomfortable for Pujara, he shot back with scores of 166 and 256 not out in the Duleep Trophy. He completed 10,000 runs in first class cricket during that tournament. It couldn't have been timelier and brought his career back on track.
Pujara had always been a force to reckon with in first-class cricket. It is on the back of some consistent domestic performances that he was first selected to play Tests for India in 2010. In 2013, Pujara became only the ninth batsman to score three career first-class triple centuries. In 2010 he had a successful tour of England and Scotland with India A, in which he emerged as the highest run-getter for his side.
Pujara made good use of the opportunity in the just-concluded three-match series against New Zealand, scoring three half-centuries and a hundred in six innings. He followed it up with a 93 against Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy.
As England come calling, Pujara will look to be a key player for India and a sheet anchor for a more expansive batsman like Virat Kohli, much the same way a resolute and stoic Dravid allowed Sachin Tendulkar to express himself.
Pujara's record against England is, at best, modest. He has 660 runs from 17 innings at an average of 44. He will surely want to improve that record. Pujara's career has alternated between crests and troughs for way too long. What he needs now is a certain degree of consistency with which he contributes to the team's cause. He would want to make the number three slot his own once and for all.
Pujara seems primed to take on Cook and Co, and success here would go a long way in establishing him as Dravid's true successor. If one remembers, Dravid had always enjoyed batting against England. It's Pujara's turn now!
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First Published On : Nov 2, 2016 15:33 IST