Lalchand Rajput: Difficult to leave Pujara out of the XI

Cheteshwar Pujara's failures in India's only practice match before the Test series against England have cast a doubt over his place in the playing XI for the first Test.

Will Test specialist Cheteshwar Pujara find a place in the playing XI ?   -  AFP

After Rahul Dravid walked into retirement, the moniker of ‘The Wall’ was, quite expectedly, passed on to Cheteshwar Pujara. After all, there was this man, who could, just as Dravid, demoralise the bowlers with his solid defence, blunt the new ball if he walked in to bat early and be an integral part of the Test team with the qualities he brings to the table.

Over the years, Pujara has been able to do justice to the moniker. But as India gets ready for its long Test series against England — beginning on Wednesday — Pujara's place in the final XI appears to be in doubt. With the stylish batsman not exactly in the best of form — he has scored only 170 runs in the last eight innings — there are murmurs in the cricketing corridors that he may well be replaced by K. L. Rahul.

But then, former India coach, Lalchand Rajput, still has his hopes pinned on the 30-year-old Pujara. Rajput, who has seen the Saurashtra batsman from close quarters, believes that the team management should still opt for Pujara in the first two Test matches. “Rahul is in top form. He had a good IPL, he got hundred against Ireland, but then, choices have to be made. You just cannot ignore Pujara because let’s not forget, every player goes through that phase and he just needs one good innings to get his rhythm back,” Rajput tells Sportstar.

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Though he understands that the decision, ultimately, will have to be taken by coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli, Rajput feels that in the first couple of Tests, the team would ideally require someone who would spend long hours at the crease. That’s where Pujara could be more effective than Rahul. “The best part is that Pujara has immense experience of playing in England and that is a great advantage,” Rajput, who is presently the coach of Zimbabwe, says.

But what if Pujara fails again? Won’t that mount the pressure on him and the team?

Rajput’s answer is simple: “If he doesn’t perform, then K. L. Rahul comes in. But then, the first choice has to be Pujara.”

The seasoned coach goes on to explain why Pujara will be handy in English conditions. “Let’s be honest, if you look at the batsmen who can bat for long hours, then it’s only Pujara. In English conditions, you need somebody to hang around and ensure that you don’t want to give away early wickets,” he says, adding: “Pujara is one guy, who after Dravid, is the one who can bat for the whole day. He is someone who can negate the English bowlers.”

While he bats for Pujara, Rajput also makes it clear that Pujara needs to change his ultra-defensive style of play to succeed in England.

“He is being too defensive. For a batsman, the main thing is that you got to watch the ball. He is too much obsessed with playing on the defensive. That’s not right. As a batsman, you have to go for runs. Playing defensive will not always work,” he says. “In English conditions, balls come late to the bat, so that’s one thing he needs to be careful of. There’s also problem of the gap between the bat and pad. If he can play close to the body and lessen the gap, it will be much better,” Rajput adds.

Having handled star cricketers in the past, Rajput firmly believes that someone like Pujara will take just ‘one good session’ to strike form. “In cricket, the fear of not performing well does play on your head. He has to come more on the front foot. In a bid to negate the swing, you got to come forward. He’s played so much, so he just needs one hour of good play and that should be it,” Rajput says.

The Indian team hails Pujara for his indomitable spirit and the never-say-die attitude. And Rajput says, this determination would help Pujara overcome the blues. “That is just a matter of time and he is the one who can hold fort. After all, all he wants is to bat, bat and bat.”

That’s experience talking!