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By Suresh Menon
Conventional wisdom in one-day cricket dictated that a team of stroke players batted around a classical player whose job it was to plan the innings, rotate strike and create an atmosphere where the big-hitters could launch themselves. In the Indian team, for about a decade and a half, that role was played with distinction by Rahul Dravid, who after initial uncertainty adapted to the shorter format and finished with nearly eleven thousand runs in 344 matches.
Dravid’s conversion from an essentially orthodox batsman who struggled to rotate strike or hit the big shots into a superbly paced one-day cricketer, and the kingpin of the Indian middle order is one of the most inspiring stories of Indian cricket. His first eight scores in ODI were 3, 4, 3, 11, 22, 7, 13, 39. The statistician S Rajesh has worked out that in his first two years, Dravid played 65 matches at a strike rate of 63 for a solitary century. From 1999 to 2005 he played 210 matches, averaged 73 at a strike rate of 72, hit 10 centuries and for long periods was India’s best batsman and easily one of the world’s best in that format. And don’t forget he was keeping wickets too.
Dravid’s adhesiveness meant that the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, and Virender Sehwag could play with a freedom they relished.
The Dravid role in the current team seems to be written for Cheteswar Pujara. There is the same obsession with occupation of the crease, the same focus on Test cricket, the same understanding of the importance of the anchor in the middle order. In 19 Tests, Pujara averages nearly 59, and currently between him and Don Bradman (average 99.94), there are only four players – Graeme Pollock, George Headley, Herbert Sutcliffe and Eddie Paynter, all of whom have played more Tests. No dramatic conclusions may be drawn from this, of course, except the obvious one. That Pujara is the quintessential Test batsman of the day.
Those who see him as Rahul Dravid incarnate (fans love to anoint successors to great players as quickly as possible), will point to his start in one-day cricket. Before the zero in the inaugural match against Bangladesh in the current series, he had scores of 3, 3, 0, 13. The big question, therefore, asks itself: Can Pujara become the next Dravid in one-day cricket?
Even as Dravid’s career was ending, the rules of the one-day game were being re-written. Batting sides no longer felt it necessary to have an anchor in the traditional sense. When Dravid finished with a strike rate of 71, it was considered good. India’s best till then was Kapil Dev’s 95, and when Adam Gilchrist ended with a strike rate of nearly 97, he was considered super human. Yet, today, Gilchrist has 15 players above him with a better strike rate.
With the advent of T20 cricket, and the improvement in the quality of bats, strike rates in one-day internationals have generally gone up. In the current Indian team alone there are four players with strike rates in the 90s while Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni all strike at the rate of over 89 per 100 balls.
And this is where Pujara might have to reassess his game. His technique is sound enough to build improvisations upon, in the manner of Dravid. But does the team need an anchor? The answer is both no and yes. No, when India are playing in the subcontinent where the wickets, boundaries and the bowling are all the batsman’s allies. But yes, when the team is touring.
More crucially, in Australia (and New Zealand) where the 50-over World Cup will be played next year, India might need a Pujara to play the anchor, to blunt the fast bowlers on a fresh wicket. Despite being surrounded by batsmen with strike rates above 87, Pujara might still have a role to play.
Which is why he will be watched with great interest in Bangladesh and in England too where India must take a chance on his finally coming good (the one-day team hasn’t been selected yet) in the format.
It is a truism in cricket that while experienced batsmen must be given a chance to fail before being replaced in the team, younger batsmen must be given a chance to succeed. It is worth carrying Pujara through the one-day series – there is talk of the West Indies and New Zealand playing India before the World Cup – that will be played before the big one.
It might just bring out the inner Dravid in Cheteswar Pujara.