If there is anything right the Indian selectors have done over the last two years, it is this. Cheteshwar Pujara makes his long-awaited comeback to the Indian Test Team for the 2-match Home series against New Zealand next month.
This time, he isn’t replacing anyone temporarily. He isn’t being brought in to have his potential gauged. He isn’t being trialed before a big tour. This time, he is filling in, permanently, for the largest shoes in Indian Test Cricket. He will take over Rahul Dravid’s coveted no. 3 spot in the Indian batting order, and hopefully, he won’t look back.
That the selectors have kept faith with the young lad from Saurashtra despite an injury-ridden frustrating 2011 season, where he didn’t lift a bat- could be a result of India’s dismal Test performance through the year. The panel may have realized that whatever they do, chop or change, try out the Sahas and the Rahanes and the Mukunds- it will be tough to ignore the presence of ‘Che’ Pujara when he is fit again. The others will come and go, but if a boy hits 3 triple centuries in less than a month- in whatever form of cricket at whatever age- his transformation into a man must be delicately handled. Supporting him through his rehabilitation, despite having riches like Tendulkar, Gambhir, Sehwag, Laxman in the same batting order, must have required either a great deal of foresight or the humble realization of one simple fact: Pujara is the only kid to have beaten the system (IPL, limited overs performance evaluation). He has remained at the periphery of the spotlight for two years now. If luck has conspired against him to keep him out of the team while he watched Kohli take a vacant spot, fate has walked hand in hand with the talented man making sure that the rest of the illustrious team has imploded around themselves.
The door has been kept open, and as much as Pujara may have liked his World Champion team to keep up their levels and play like Warriors- their inept display is precisely the reason he is still in the fray.
In a warped manner, he should consider himself fortunate to make a comeback in a team that even Rohit Sharma hasn’t broken into- after playing 90 more ODIs and innumerable more T20s than him. It is unfair to say that he hasn’t earned it, though, because if there was anybody capable of shoring the grief-stricken ageing middle order with assured technique and belief, it is the man who made an unforgettable Test debut against a shocked Australian team back in 2010 at Bangalore.
His 72, while chasing a tricky 207, at number 3, still remains in the memory of many- and more so, in the memories of the people that matter. That he went through an iffy South African Tour after that, replacing Yuvraj Singh and struggling against an all-pace attack on hostile pitches, may have been pardoned- because apart from Sachin Tendulkar, who was on his 3rd tour there, nobody was accustomed to such playing conditions.
Ironically, it was the Indian Premier League that brought Pujara’s career to a standstill. A freak 2011 injury while fielding, brought on him yet another unexpected tragedy- this after his mother had passed away in 2005. Incidentally, his test debut coincided with the 5th anniversary of his mother’s death. His trial by fire, even off the field, continued- because his time was spent caring for his father, a former Ranji Player (Arvind Pujara), who was recovering from an open heart surgery. Life could have been about anything but cricket, at that time, for the young man. It could also be the reason behind how Pujara managed to stay sane while watching other younger, talented players make a beeline for the test squad, while he was still in bed. Greater perspective may have been attained as he spent time with his ailing father, and this was demonstrated in abundance as he led India A to a tour of West Indies a few months ago. This was when Rohit Sharma was favorite to replace Rahul Dravid, and Tiwary had made his way into the scheme of things. Rohit’s first innings 94 against West Indies A proved to be a clincher, until Pujara scored a Laxmanisque 96* in the fourth innings to chase down a 200+ score with tail enders around him. It was a battle between these two for the rest of the series, which India A went on to lose, but it was Pujara who scored 3 half centuries in his first 4 innings- a streak that coincided with Rohit’s unexplainable loss of form.
That Rohit did his cause no favour by compiling a princely total of 11 runs in 5 ODI innings against Sri Lanka soon after, only hammered home the need for greater temperament and technique on the international stage.
And then, naturally, Pujara was the one named in India’s Test Squad once again. He replaced Rohit, and was one of the very few sensible picks for this series.
That he will play in Home conditions will only add to his confidence, and could prove crucial to Indian cricket as a whole. It is very important for Team India that he succeeds, because they have already been through hell finding a replacement for Sourav Ganguly. They may not need to relentlessly back Pujara as they have backed Rohit in limited overs cricket, but the same amount of hope and prayers will accompany the young man as he walks out to the crease to take his hard at number 3- a spot that, in protecting the greatest batsman in Indian cricket, has become the greatest symbol of Test Batting.
Arvind Pujara will not be the only man hoping to see young Che continue from where he left off in Bangalore.
One can’t help but wonder if bigger fortunes lie in the young man’s batting gloves. One of them, that of the chief selector, could be the beginning of the end of an era. A change of guard, indeed.