He still has some way to go

Cheteshwar Pujara with the Man of the Match medal. The middle-order batsman scored a double hundred that set the stage for India’s big victory against Australia in the second Test in Hyderabad.-K.R. DEEPAK

Cheteshwar Pujara is all of 11 Tests old. True, he might have more runs, more centuries and a better average than what Rahul Dravid had after an equal number of Tests, but to anoint him as the latter’s successor at this stage would be short-sighted to say the least, writes N. Sudarshan.

October 13, 2010. It was the fifth day of the second Test between India and Australia in Bangalore. The home side, chasing a target of 207 runs, had lost the dashing opener, Virender Sehwag, early. The Bangalore crowd anticipated hometown hero Rahul Dravid to come out and blunt the Aussie attack, but out came the 22-year-old debutant, Cheteshwar Pujara.

Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had promoted Pujara to No. 3 and the results were stunning. Pujara produced a classy fourth innings act (an 89-ball 72) that set up India’s victory.

Is Pujara the ideal replacement for Dravid? The debate started then — and it has been raging until now, getting refined with each passing day.

The comparison between Dravid and Pujara is not without basis. The two have much more in common than just the batting position. To value one’s wicket — the greatest of Rahul Dravid’s traits — to grind the opposition out, to stay humble and keep a low profile are some.

It is one thing to possess these traits and another to put them to good use. Pujara has been able to do that until now. On the five occasions that he crossed 50, four have resulted in centuries. Two of them are in fact double hundreds. During both his maiden century and his latest double hundred, he displayed the quality of biding his time at the crease before taking off. Against New Zealand in Hyderabad, his first fifty came off 119 balls, but the next came in just 50 deliveries. And versus Australia — also at the same venue — he along with M. Vijay added just 37 runs in 22 overs on the second morning, before stepping up the run rate in astonishing fashion.

Pujara is all of 11 Tests old. True, he might have more runs, more centuries and a better average than what Dravid had after an equal number of Tests, but to anoint him as the latter’s successor at this stage would be short-sighted to say the least.

Dravid’s greatest legacy is his performance overseas. Excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, he featured in 15 Test wins abroad, and in those matches, Dravid scored 1577 runs at an average of 65.70. In terms of both average and aggregate runs, he outdid even the maestro, Sachin Tendulkar.

In the long run, it is this ‘Gold Standard’ that Pujara needs to be measured against. In the two Tests he has played away from home so far — in South Africa — no compelling storylines have emerged. For someone brought-up on the dust bowls of Saurashtra, it will no doubt be difficult on the bouncy surfaces outside the sub-continent. This is where it calls for some patience.

No one knows this better than Pujara himself and this has helped keep him grounded amidst the over-the-top comparisons with Dravid. In an interview to ESPN-cricinfo he said: “It is important for the country’s young players to get a chance to tour abroad so they can learn how to adapt to different conditions. Being a youngster, if you play them in their home conditions and you do well, you get confidence out of it.”

His overseas tours have been limited so far. As a 22-year-old, Pujara captained India ‘A’ to England and his form in the series was instrumental in him finding a place against the Aussies at home. A knee injury in 2011 during the Indian Premier League (IPL) and his subsequent rehabilitation meant that he could not tour England and Australia with the national side.

However, his form in West Indies for India ‘A’ — he topped the scoring charts with 252 runs — in mid-2012 put him back in the reckoning. This included a match-winning unbeaten 96 of 222 balls that helped his country scamper home by two wickets.

True, the bowling attacks were nowhere close to the international standards — say South Africa and England — but the experience of batting in those conditions would definitely be of help when he encounters the Steyns, the Morkels and the Philanders on the bouncy pitches of South Africa later this year.

For every sportsperson , it is the second season that is always the most difficult — either in prolonging a promising start or in scrambling for the missing pieces in the jigsaw. Vinod Kambli withered under the burden and Irfan Pathan learnt it the hard way.

Though Pujara made his debut back in 2010, this has been his first full-fledged season in Test cricket and he is peaking all right. His second will begin with the tour of South Africa in November where he will be presented with newer, trickier and tougher problems to solve. He will be expected to answer more questions than when he made his debut. Until he crosses this hurdle, the comparison with Dravid must wait.