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Make Pujara open with Vijay.

by Gaurav Sethi

It’s hard to say when Cheteshwar Pujara was put on notice for the first time. By now, it’s pointless to look back and identify that exact tour. The sound bytes, the stats, the claims, counter claims, whether the team management backed him or not. 

Did you back him? That should suffice for now. 

Did you drop him after that first stutter? Was it even a stutter? What was it that defined the Pujara narrative? 

A need to see Rohit Sharma’s narrative unfold in Test cricket too? To fulfil a prophecy created by former Mumbai cricketers that Rohit indeed was the answer? 

It was enticing. Why wouldn’t it be, it was said so many times by so many people, on so many sport’s channels, it was starting to sound like the truth. 

It came with the glitter of the shorter formats, the men that mattered believed in Five-Day Rohit. If One Day Rohit and Half Day Rohit can, why can’t Five Day Rohit?

It didn’t matter that ODI and T20 strike rates were being inflicted on to Test cricket strike rates. The first two were a given, that they had or would yield similar returns in the longer format was both a misrepresentation and a wrong assumption. One that continues to be made, Rohit vs. Pujara, plus other batsmen vs. Pujara. 

(for the record, Pujara’s strike rate is 47.55; Vijay’s 46.66, Rohit’s 55.14, Rahane’s 52.50, Kohli’s 58.26, KL Rahul 57.06. Dhawan’s 68. Sehwag’s was a paltry 82.23)

After the ODIs, Rohit was not picked for the Test series in England. Shikhar Dhawan however, was. After a pair in the warm up game, it’s unlikely Dhawan will open the batting in the first Test.

Much like Rohit, Dhawan too comes with the promise of the shorter formats. Much like Rohit, he rarely plays a full Test series outside the sub-continent. Even though he may not open, unlikely as it sounds, he could still break into the middle order at some point in the series. Depending of course on who is put on notice.

Rahane too has been on notice of late. No T20s followed by no ODIs, followed by a bad Test run at home, followed by not making it to the first two Tests in South Africa.

Though when Rahane returns, he returns as the vice-captain.

Both Rahane and Pujara turned 30 this year. One is an ace fielder, the other has dodgy knees. He often fields at bat pad, chases balls all padded up. Causing much hilarity and ridicule in the commentary box.

 Just listening, you’d think Pujara is some clown. It’s another thing, this clown averages 50 in Test cricket. Till not too long ago, even Kohli averaged less than him. Till not too long ago, Pujara’s Test strike rate was higher than Kohli’s and the one-day masters (in Tests). While Dhawan, Rahane, Vijay and Rahul’s Test batting averages are in the low 40s, Rohit’s has dropped below 40.

There is the perpetual argument of Pujara’s home vs away record. For that argument, there’s a day, a little over four years back – July 17, 2014, Lord’s, 2nd Test vs England. There was Rahane’s 103. But what was Rahane’s 103 built on?

It was built on Pujara’s 28. 117 balls. Just shy of three hours.

That day, Dhawan had a 7(11) in store, Kohli 25(34); impressive strike rates but little else.

That famous Lord’s win was built on Pujara’s 28. And Vijay’s 24(67). They saw India past a T20 crisis to the 21st over.

In the second dig, Vijay, 95, and Pujara, 43, pulled India to the 44th over. Yet it is Rahane’s century that is always spoken of. (For everyone loves scrapers, the foundations go unseen, way below ground level)  

All along, India thought they had found a new No. 3, a new Dravid. What we failed to see, that in Vijay-Pujara, they had a new opening pair. Not just to tough it out in Away Tests – but to cash in as often Dhawan does when he’s handed a home game.

We might miss out on Dhawan’s IPL tons vs Afghanistan but that’s a small price to pay. It’s been too long that India has ignored the opening pair and used it as a convenience store. Or as the case is in away Tests, an inconvenience store.

Chances are, they may still start with Vijay and Rahul, for, that’s what the warm-up games and the warm weather points to.

In Vijay and Pujara, there is an overall calm that rubs off each other; one that combines at the fall of the first wicket – but why wait for that inevitability when you can delay it?

But not just that, it should be communicated to both Vijay and Pujara, regardless of what happens in the series, they’re on for all five Tests.

In that knowledge, two of India’s most unsung batsmen will slave it out, beating this England attack into the ground. If they can’t, India can’t.

It may not always be pretty but it will be crudely effective. And from that crude, Rahul, Kohli and Rahane can process a Lord’s 2014 encore.

By the way, amongst Indian batting partnerships in excess of 2500 runs, Vijay-Pujara have the highest average – beyond Tendulkar-Dravid, beyond Gambhir-Sehwag, beyond Kohli-Rahane.

But why is what should be so obvious, beyond everyone? Why wait when you can start with Vijay-Pujara on top?

(Aside: Much is being made of Pujara’s county form this season. In response, the batsman has spoken of fresh pitches at the start of the season, low team scores 200-250 and the to-and-fro between India and England before and after the Test match with Afghanistan. Just as well he doesn’t play in the IPL)

First published here

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