India’s best long-term investment

Virat Kohli… there is a touch of splendour in his style.-K.R. DEEPAK

It would be ridiculous to speak of Pujara and Dravid in the same breath or expect Kohli to be the right replacement for Laxman. However, given their talent, the two young batsmen can be expected to serve Indian cricket well and for a long time, writes Vijay Lokapally.

Bill Ponsford once said of Sir Donald Bradman, “Don sees the ball two yards earlier than the rest of us.” Imagine, two yards earlier than the rest! As a No. 3 batsman, Bradman was the pick of the lot; in fact, the best as batting in this slot means extra pressure arising from great expectations. India’s Rahul Dravid used to experience this when he went in at the fall of the first wicket. And now, Cheteshwar Pujara must be going through it.

Pujara’s arrival, with a century in his fourth Test, does not, however, ensure that the void left by Dravid’s departure is filled. It would be weird to even consider Pujara as a replacement for Dravid at such an early stage of his international career.

There can never be a replacement for Dravid in the true sense. His was a saga of sacrifice and devotion that created a solid platform for Indian cricket to develop. He was an integral part of a middle-order that was acknowledged as the best in the world, a middle-order that had batsmen of great repute such as Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and V. V. S. Laxman.

Of the talented Indian middle-order batsmen, Laxman came closest to Bradman in terms of spotting the ball early. It gave him the freedom to plan two shots for a delivery, making a last-minute switch that dictated the direction the ball would go.

Dravid, on the other hand, believed in constructing an innings. He was a fine stroke-player but the burden of steadying the innings meant he had to curb his desire to play shots freely. His presence in the middle inspired the others and Dravid loved playing the role of a sheet anchor.

With a flamboyant opener like Virender Sehwag, a calculated destroyer of bowling, the Indian batting was awesome. Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman brought amazing depth to India’s batting and often matches were set up by their exploits. It was in keeping with India’s tradition of having a strong middle-order from the times of Vijay Hazare.

Pujara has just taken baby steps in Test cricket. The century against New Zealand reflected his attitude and discipline. Among his contemporaries in the team, Pujara is clearly the most accomplished in terms of technique. However, his true test would come on pitches overseas where conditions demand extreme brilliance. Pujara needs to check his initial forward movement when playing abroad but experts believe he has the potential to adapt.

Virat Kohli brings strength to the Indian middle-order in his own way. There is a touch of splendour in his style; he loves to play his shots, often on the rise, but he is also judicious when confronting the challenges posed by a tricky pitch or a strong opposition. Kohli makes the most of his strong areas. He and Pujara are India’s best long-term investment.

Bred on the benign Rajkot pitch, Pujara has a pleasant habit of notching up big scores. He can go about his job all alone, quite in the manner of Dravid, who was never rattled by the happenings at the other end. In fact, when Pujara was trying to make a mark, sometimes becoming frustrated at not getting an opportunity, he was influenced largely by Dravid.

Dravid counselled Pujara and the latter grew in confidence after a few sessions with his “favourite” batsman. Dravid had long conversations with Pujara when the latter was training at the National Cricket Academy. In a way, the mantle was being passed in the best possible manner from the senior pro to the gifted young man. Dravid wanted Pujara to be groomed in a phased manner since he had all the attributes to play in Tests. “He has quality and should be carefully groomed,” Dravid had said. No wonder, Dravid was the happiest man when Pujara, on his Test debut, made a fourth-innings 72 at No. 3 and guided India to a convincing win against Australia in Bangalore in 2010.

Pujara was almost crippled by knee injuries twice, but his father, Arvind, played his part well in keeping the lad focussed. “My son is very religious and believes in traditions. His (late) mother should get all the credit for his upbringing. His good behaviour is because of his mother’s education. I only taught him some cricket,” said the senior Pujara.

The middle-order had played a significant part in India’s rise to the No. 1 spot in Tests. Before the Hyderabad Test, the cumulative tally of Laxman, Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar was 44751 runs from 599 Tests. The rich legacy found a spark in Pujara, with Kohli also showing promise of sharing the responsibility. While the National selectors continue to show faith in the likes of Suresh Raina since Rohit Sharma and Yuvraj Singh have not lived up to expectations, Manoj Tiwary continues to wait for a break despite healthy performances in domestic cricket.

As observed by former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin, “Pujara looks good from whatever little I have seen of him. I have always believed that the No. 3 has to be your top batsman. He has to be good technically and Pujara is a perfect man for the slot. Not everyone can be a Sunil Gavaskar or a Mohinder Amarnath or a Geoff Boycott in terms of technique but you have your own ways of coping with the situation. The Indian middle-order looks good with the arrival of Pujara and Kohli but we should allow them to grow and not create needless pressure with silly comparisons.”

Very true. It would be ridiculous to speak of Pujara and Dravid in the same breath or expect Kohli to be the right replacement for Laxman. India boasted of the best middle-order in the world when these stalwarts thrived together in all conditions despite increasing pressure with every match. International cricket is about adjustments and Pujara and Kohli would do well to remember that they would be the ‘marked men’ in the seasons ahead. Given their talent, one can expect the pair to serve Indian cricket long and well.