The series against Australia at home was meant to be an audition for the fringe players to stake a claim for World Cup selection. It was also a platform to iron out whatever minor flaws that remain ahead of the mega event. This was the last set of international ODIs before India board the flight to the UK after the IPL and hence it was a crucial series with regards to finding the right balance. However, after five ODIs, where India were stunned by the visitors, a few questions remained unanswered. And one of them is the perennial, 'who is the best fit for the No 4 spot?'
In the last one year (Since 1 Jan 2018), India have tried eight different players — Ambati Rayudu, Ajinkya Rahane, MS Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik, Rishabh Pant, KL Rahul, Virat Kohli, Kedar Jadhav — in that No 4 position in ODIs but still haven't figured out who the best fit is. The experimentation has been endless. And with the World Cup less than three months away, the question still persists. Former India captain Sourav Ganguly has come out with a suggestion that Cheteshwar Pujara should be the man boarding the flight to the UK to fill in that No 4-sized hole at the World Cup.
“See, I am going to say something that might not sound believable to many viewers, and a lot of people might laugh at my suggestion,” he told India TV recently. “But for me, Cheteshwar Pujara should be India’s No 4 in ODIs."
While the names of Shankar, Dhoni and even Kohli, dropping one spot down, were in consideration, Ganguly's suggestion left the social media befuddled. Some found it hilarious. Some laughed and some tried hard to make sense of his words.
“His fielding might be a bit weak, but he is a very good batsman. I know people will be shocked by my claim, but if you want a quality batsman who is better than the options India has tried of late, I think Pujara is the best choice,” the former India captain said.
“Sometimes, you need solidity in one-day cricket, and Pujara provides you with that in ample measure,” Ganguly said. “Especially when your top three batsmen are so capable and are scoring a mountain of runs,” he added.
Well, Ganguly's suggestion might not be as bizarre as people made it look, but his timing of the advice might be.
Firstly, Pujara isn't anywhere near selectors' radar in the limited overs internationals. And secondly, the time for experimentation has gone. Trying something totally different new on a big stage like the World Cup might get risky.
The selectors had shortlisted a group of around 18 players for the World Cup for quite some time and have been experimenting within that group. These are the players that have been playing limited overs cricket at the international level. To get Pujara in the mix is too late now.
The thing with Pujara is that he's always been perceived as a Test player. The questions about his strike rate and approach somehow always pop up during discussions. To be fair, it's not entirely his mistake. It's the perception that has developed over the years. However, of late, he's tried hard to change those notions. In the recently-concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, he scored at a strike rate of 131 and even hit a 61-ball ton.
"I am not surprised by this century, but I am sure many people are," he said after the ton.
Pujara is a fighter. His dogged determination is what sets him apart and it was on ample display in the Test series against Australia. He has a habit of answering his critics in style.
A part of the reason why Ganguly's suggestion might not be completely bizarre is the fact that the Saurashtra batsman has a good List A average of 54.20 from 101 innings. In fact, he has the fourth-highest average overall. Also, last year in May-June, he was impressed in the Royal London One-Day Cup in England where he hit a century and three fifties, scoring 370 runs from eight matches at 52.85. However, the question that comes up is, how prepared and ready is he for the big stage?
He hasn't played any international limited-overs matches in the last five years; his last ODI was against Bangladesh in June 2014. In the last nine months, he's played just 10 limited-overs matches and that too in the domestic arena which included six T20s.
Playing in the domestic arena is one thing but playing in the international space, that too at a big stage, is quite another.
Given his determination and ability to adapt, there are chances that he might succeed as well. No one is writing him off completely but is the team management ready to take that risk, this close to World Cup? The players who have been playing musical chairs for the No 4 position have been playing at the international level consistently and it's not that they have been complete failures. It's the inconsistency that has been causing the problems.
Maybe Ganguly could have come up with this suggestion a couple of months ago when Pujara was in sumptuous form in Australia. The team management could have had the option to consider the Pujara for the ODI series with an eye on the World Cup. It would have given them a chance to try him out for a longer period of time with two more ODI series in the line.
Also, Pujara won't be playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL) while all the other contenders for the spot have one more chance to impress and get back to form or take the momentum forward.
After the Australia ODIs, Kohli said that they are "sorted combination wise" and are "clear about our playing XI" for the World Cup. "There will be just one change based on condition," the captain had said. This gives a strong indication, that the team management might not be interested in experimenting with new things for the mega event.
As for the No 4 spot, MS Dhoni might be the man who could solve that conundrum. His approach has changed over the years and he is not the six-hitting monster of the 2000s anymore, but a matured and a patient innings-builder.
He might have struggled to wallop big hits in the last few years but he can bring in the stability in the middle overs with his composure. The rest of the batting order can play around him to maintain the balance of run flow. And India have the players to do that in the form of Hardik Pandya and Kedar Jadhav in the lower middle order.
Ganguly's suggestion isn't an over-the-top one but it might just be one of the rare occasions where he may not have got his timing right.