Kohli snaps at Pujara's heels

The Royal Challengers team-mates in a race of their own

Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. It’s a combination that might, all other things being equal, serve Indian cricket with distinction for a long time to come. For now, the two Royal Challengers Bangalore batsmen are engaged in a battle for a middle-order slot in the Test team, a berth currently occupied by the 23-year-old Pujara.

The right-handed Saurashtrian earned his spurs after Suresh Raina was found out by short-pitched fast bowling, and made a stirring debut in Bangalore against Australia. He wasn’t among the runs in South Africa but impressed with his grit and technique. But the 22-year-old Kohli, who has scored runs by the bushels in all forms of the game at the first-class level and has been in outstanding limited-overs form for India, can’t be kept out of the Test team for too long.

“I never believe in competition, ultimately it is about individuals,” Pujara said of the race between him and the former India under-19 captain. “Earlier, people said I had a competition with Rahul Dravid and that I would take his place in the Test team. I never believed it.

“If you perform well, no one is going to take you out of the team.” Kohli and Pujara played under-19 cricket together for India, though they haven’t been in the same international eleven yet.

“Hopefully, we will form a good partnership,” added Pujara, with whom he was involved in a 62-run (35b) alliance in a losing cause against the Deccan Chargers in Hyderabad on Thursday.

“Virat and I have played in the under-19 team together, it might help us when we play for the country. After our under-19 stint, it’s the first time we have started playing together.”

Having had a taste of international cricket, Pujara is eager to don national colours in the limited-overs format too, aware that while the World Cup winners wear a settled look, a strong IPL performance won’t hurt him. “The team has done very well in the World Cup and it is difficult to break into the Indian side,” admitted Pujara. “But the IPL is the best platform for all young players aspiring to play at the highest level. If I do well here, it will help my cause.”

Pujara didn’t have a great time for the Kolkata Knight Riders in previous IPL editions, but showed glimpses of his tremendous potential in a cameo where he took on Dale Steyn, the number one bowler in the world, on Thursday. His 15-ball 25 included two blazing fours in one over, the second a wonderfully innovative squeezed drive off an attempted yorker that flew behind point.

“All the great players have said it that if you have your basics right, you can play any format,” he observed.

“That inni­ngs gave me a lot of co­n­fidence. I have been preparing myself for the Twenty20 format. I’ve worked on a couple of shots -- lofting the ball, facing yorkers.”

His preparation has been impeccable. Now, for the young man willing ‘to bat at any number’, it’s all about getting his chances, and grabbing them with both hands.

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