When Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were dropped from the Indian Test team for the home series against Sri Lanka, it seemed their Test careers were all but over. Many cricket pundits predicted so. And they had a fair point as the two senior men had been struggling for an extended period of time. There were glimpses of revival in every series but nothing really materialized into anything productive. At the end of each series, it was back to the same old story again.
There was not a lot of backlash when the two were dropped and understandably so. Starting from January 2021, Pujara had scored 810 runs in 16 Tests at an average of 27.93. His last Test hundred came in the New Year Test of January 2019. As for Rahane, during the same period, he scored 547 runs in 15 Tests at an average of 20.25 with a best of 67. Both Pujara and Rahane got plenty of opportunities to secure their places but failed to do the same. BCCI President Sourav Ganguly urged them to do well in the Ranji Trophy. Again, both came up with some impressive performances but nothing outstanding.
A second lease of life for Cheteshwar?
While Rahane got picked by the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) for the ongoing IPL season, Pujara missed out and instead earned a contract with Surrey for the County Championship Division 2. Missing out on the IPL has proved to be a blessing in disguise for Pujara as he has been absolutely sensational for his county. In four matches, he has smashed 717 runs at a spectacular average of 143.40 with four hundreds (two of them being double tons). At 61.22, his strike rate has also been impressive. In the four games, Pujara has scored 201* vs Derbyshire, 109 vs Worcestershire, 203 vs Durham and 170 not out vs Middlesex. In fact, he is the second-leading run-getter in the championship. Only Sean Dickson (729) has scored more runs than him.
Still India’s best bet for No.3?
In Pujara’s absence, Hanuma Vihari came into the No.3 position for the home series against Sri Lanka. He did a good job, like he always does in the limited opportunities that he gets. However, one still feels that Vihari is better suited to the No. 5 for No. 6 position since he is highly valuable while batting with the tail. Shreyas Iyer is another option to ponder upon for the No. 3 slot. But considering he is struggling against bouncers in the T20 format in the ongoing IPL, one can only imagine his woes if he comes up against genuine pace in Tests. He would be better lower down the order for now.
An in-form Pujara is still India’s best bet for the No. 3 slot. Even though not in the best of nick, he played some stellar knocks in Australia during the team’s Test series victory during their previous visit there. He has played a few excellent knocks otherwise as well. But what has been missing all along, and critically at that, has been the consistency. One good knock followed by nine poor ones, exasperated the team management as well as the Indian fans. In the end, the right decision was made to drop him along with Rahane. No two ways about that at all. He needed to go away from Test cricket to find his rhythm back.
Cut to present. What Pujara has done with his magnificent performances is he has ensured he remains in the selectors’ radar as far as Test selection is concerned. Clearly, Indian cricket cannot ignore such brilliant performances from Pujara. In fact, this is exactly what the selectors wanted from him when they took the tough call to drop him from the side. Pujara has done his job. The selectors must do theirs now.