The Indian team for the rescheduled Test against England, which will be played in Birmingham from July 1 to 5, includes veteran batter Cheteshwar Pujara, who has earned a comeback following a superb showing in county cricket for Sussex. Pujara played five matches and amassed 720 runs at a gigantic average of 120 with four hundreds. There were two scores of 200 plus and one 170 not out as well. These are the kind of numbers he produced for India when he was at the peak of his batting powers. While his return to form is great news for Indian cricket, the big question that needs to be asked is, does Pujara come back into the playing XI straightaway?
The defiant cricketer, who turned 34 in January this year, was dropped for the two-match Test series against Sri Lanka at home. In his absence, Hanuma Vihari, who plays a similar brand of cricket to Pujara, was handed the crucial No.3 slot. He did not produce sensational numbers but did reasonably enough to register scores of 58, 31 and 35 on the three occasions that he got an opportunity to bat. Vihari would be disappointed that he could not convert starts into bigger scores. Then again, those were only three knocks and are too few to judge the calibre of a player. Thus, it would be unfair to drop him from the playing XI on the basis of his efforts against the Lankans at home.
Pujara’s return a warning for Vihari
There is another angle to the Vihari story, though. The 28-year-old is a resilient character and has produced quite a number of crucial knocks in a stop-start career. However, the Sri Lanka series was not a one-off for the Hyderabad batter in the sense that he has failed to capitalize on starts in the past as well. If we glance at his career, he has scored 808 runs in 15 Tests at an average of 35.13 with one hundred and five fifties.
Vihari made an impressive 56 on Test debut against England at The Oval in September 2018. Barring the 2019 tour of West Indies, where he was player of the series for registering scores of 93, 111 and 53 not out, it has largely been a story of getting good starts and getting out for Vihari. During the 2018-19 tour of Australia, he registered two 20s and a forty. In New Zealand in February 2020, he scored one fifty in four innings. During the 2020-21 tour Down Under, he again failed before that marathon 23* brought him some much-deserved fame.
Speaking about Vihari, former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin also recently commented while speaking to Khaleej Times, “It’s very important for him to get the big scores. He has to score hundreds to grab the chance. Scoring only 50s and 60s is not really going to help him. He is an outstanding player. But you can play for India for a long time only when you get the big runs consistently.” So, while Vihari is likely to grab the No.3 spot over Pujara for the one-off Test in England, he needs to make the most of his opportunities, else he will have only himself to blame.
Is there a place for Pujara in the playing XI?
If the think tank decides to go for Pujara ahead of Vihari for the one-off Test, then the No.3 debate will get automatically settled. If not, in case of injuries, Pujara can still slot in the batting order. In case KL Rahul is unavailable, Pujara could even open. He has done that before. That is a slim possibility though as India also have Shubman Gill in their ranks. It would be interesting to observe how the Indian management tackles the Pujara question in England.
Predicted XI: Rohit Sharma (c), Shubman Gill, Hanuma Vihari, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj