The verdant landscape en route to Shimoga fills you with expectations of getting welcomed by a cozy little town. But Shimoga is anything but quaint.
It’s a bustling hub of action with visible touches of modernity. Amidst those unending movements around you stands the JNNCE grounds, a stunning throwback to the time when cricket was played more as a pastime. Perhaps, that setting is ideal for Cheteshwar Pujara, a batsman in the classical mould looking to find his full range ahead of a busy season.
This is not to say that Pujara, whose Test average stands at an imperious 65.55 at this moment, has been struggling with the bat. After two futile outings (13 and 0) against Zimbabwe in an away one-day series, Pujara showed signs of returning to his run-making ways while playing against South Africa ‘A’ last month.
The Saurashtra batsman made two hundreds against South Africans (109 not out in List ‘A’ match at Pretoria and a 137 in a four-day game at Rustenburg) to go with two fifties while playing for India ‘A’.
But Pujara the captain and batsman failed to make an impression in the four-day match against the West Indies ‘A’ at Mysore.
While his decision to bowl first backfired so badly that the visitors racked up a 400-plus total in their first innings, eventually setting the tone for their massive 162-run win at Gangotri Glades. As a batsman too, Pujara couldn’t live up to the lofty standards that he has set for himself, making just 3 and 17.
Again, this is not to say that those modest outings might have affected his confidence, but a fit and firing Pujara is essential for India as they move towards an important season and he can’t afford any slip-ups at this stage.
“I’m looking to gain some momentum. Batting is all about rhythm and one has to continue to maintain that by playing as many matches as a batsman can. West Indies (senior team) is scheduled to come here later in the year. They have a good pace attack and I’m looking forward to facing them to gain some confidence,” Pujara had said recently.
Then comes the issue of captaincy. With Mahendra Singh Dhoni firmly in the saddle, it might appear a tad premature to think of his successor at this time. But Sandeep Patil & Co might just have begun to think of the post-Dhoni era. There are two candidates now – Virat Kohli, a certainty in all three formats, and Pujara, a must-to-have figure in Tests but still finding his feet in the limited-over versions.
Kohli was entrusted with captaincy in the away triangular series when Dhoni was out injured while he got a full series as skipper against Zimbabwe to showcase his credentials. Soon, Pujara too received an opportunity to press his claim forward when the selectors decided to appoint him as the India ‘A’ skipper for two series – against South Africa ‘A’ and the West Indies ‘A’.
Unlike Kohli, the Saurashtra man is a calm presence on the field, seldom making himself visible with animated celebrations. Even his batting is an extension of his personality, based on solidity rather than aggression and pulse-racing stroke-making. At this stage, Kohli stands a few yards ahead of Pujara in the race for the hot seat, and the latter would like to close the gap, and for that it’s mandatory that he maintains his golden run with the bat.
The failure at Mysore might have come as a timely reminder for him to shake off any traces of sluggishness. The sight of Pujara spending a good deal of time at the nets here on Monday, and the sweet sound of ball hitting the middle of the bat assured one of his intent.