As the new World Test Championship cycle approaches, the talk about changing personnel and bringing a fresh approach to the team is gaining ground especially after the failure of the batting group in the WTC final and Virat Kohli’s comments in the post-match press conference where he highlighted the need to improve intent and the need to evolve as a team going forward.
Although it was a collective failure of the batting group which led to India’s downfall in the final, there has been much speculation over the place of Cheteshwar Pujara in the Indian team and his role in the next WTC cycle. While some are backing Pujara to retain his place and consider him a vital cog in India’s Test fortunes, another school of thought is rooting for change and wants India to explore other options at their disposal.
Reasons for backing Pujara
One, his overall Test record. Pujara has been a prolific run-scorer since his Under-19 days and has successfully translated that onto the senior level with an average of over 50 in first-class cricket with a record-breaking 13 double-centuries. He ranks ninth on the list of most runs scored for India in Test cricket, which speaks volumes of his run-scoring abilities and his overall contribution towards Indian cricket.
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Two, his exemplary temperament. If there is one thing that defines Pujara the batsmen, it has to be his ability to bat through tough times without panicking or moving away from his plans. His performances in the tours of Australia in 2018 and 2020 are a testament to this ability to battle it out in tough conditions and score runs when the team needs him to.
Third, his role in the batting order. Pujara is that rare breed of batsman in modern cricket today who is prepared to hold one end up while others around him play freely. His solidity assures the other batsmen that one end is secured, which ultimately leads to the team’s success. A classic example of this approach was seen in the Sydney and Brisbane Test when India were under the pump and Pujara provided stability at one end, thus giving his team-mates much-needed confidence to play freely at another end. This makes his role crucial, being surrounded by more free-flowing batsmen to provide the batting lineup with much-needed stability and calmness.
Reasons to look beyond Pujara
His inability to take the game forward. One talking point right throughout Pujara’s career has been his strike-rate and his inability to take the game ahead at the desired pace. The initial period of Kohli’s captaincy saw Pujara being dropped from India’s playing 11 for more aggressive batters like Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul. While Pujara made a strong comeback and talk of his strike-rate was put to rest for some time, especially after the historic performance in the 2018-19 tour of Australia, talk has started to resurface after his average performances thereafter.
Second, his Test record outside Asia. For all the talk of Pujara giving stability to India’s Test batting line-up, his overall performances outside Asia are quite average: a batting average of 20 in New Zealand and the West Indies, 31 in South Africa and 27 in England respectively. The exception is in Australia where his batting average matches his overall career average.
Coupled with a strike-rate below 40 in all these countries, the team ends up finding itself in a position where even though some time has been consumed, the overall scoreboard goes nowhere and eventually in seaming conditions the batting unit keeps falling short of the desired score.
As the new WTC cycle begins, many teams are focusing on rebuilding and evaluating their plans and approach towards Test cricket. The Indian management may also look to try new combinations to fine-tune their performance and go one step ahead in this cycle of WTC as was evident in Kohli’s press conference after the final.
The likes of Hanuma Vihari and Rahul are more than capable options, having shown their worth previously in Test cricket. Both of them are top-order batsmen with solid techniques and they are capable of scoring big runs in tough periods of Test cricket.
While there are strong reasons to back Pujara for the time being given his stature and contributions at important junctures in the last decade, there will perhaps be the temptation to explore other options who are in form and can provide a different dimension to the Test team. Trying them out in the early part of a new WTC cycle may not be a bad idea. It could even prove a masterstroke that can take India a notch higher in the future.