Captain Kohli, King Kohli or maybe Superman Kohli, call him whatever you’d like, but there is no debating the fact that he is the face of Indian cricket, for now, and possibly the foreseeable future. His passion, his attacking flair and his ability to shine even when others around him fail, coupled with tenacity and grit while marshaling his troops can be compared to a handful few who have played the sport before him. His batting and captaincy records speak volumes of him, the individual and the leader. Virat Kohli is clearly the shining star India needed after Sachin’s retirement!
That being said though, while Sachin was mulling retirement, the Great ‘Wall’ of India had already fallen. He probably wasn’t the same joy to watch as Sachin, and he possibly didn’t have Sachin’s offensive flair, but Dravid’s defiance and deflation of opposition attacks was something India had for long banked on. While Dravid had been the top run-getter in an ODI World Cup (1999), much has been made about his lack of adapting to the slam-bang avatar of limited overs cricket and even the most pious of his followers, were gunning for a like-for-like replacement in Test cricket, and not limited overs cricket as much!
In comes Cheteshwar Pujara, the top run-getter and player of the tournament award winner at the 2006 U-19 World Cup. Despite his technique and temperament, he was never seriously considered for the limited-overs formats and was widely regarded as a red-ball cricketing prospect. With Dravid’s retirement in January of 2012, it was imminent that the No.3 batting void would be filled by the Saurashtra batsman. While Kohli was the heir apparent to Sachin’s throne and Godly status, the sailing wasn’t as smooth for Pujara. The Wall, for many, would not be rebuilt too soon.
Prior to the start of this year, much was made about Pujara’s inconsistencies away from home. While he was clearly India’s second best batsman at home, it was Ajinkya Rahane who was thriving (by relative standards), in overseas conditions. India’s Top order batsmen were all under scrutiny, for different reasons, but the same results. None of them were scoring runs consistently away from home, period. Pujara, the successor to the infallible Wall, was in jeopardy of losing his position in the side.
While I have long been a proponent of Pujara’s need in the Indian batting lineup, much for his determination and commitment to his role (https://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/cheteshwar-pujara-what-the-numbers-say), I knew not many believed in the subdued and arduous nature of his batting in today’s cricketing world obsessed with strike rates and range of attacking shots. Much to a lot of people’s joy (disbelief, in my case), Pujara was dropped for the first Test during India’s tour to England! While Kohli put up a batting masterclass in that Test, every Indian batsman, not known as Virat failed miserably and India lost the first Test by 31 runs.
India was quick to drop the three-opener theory and Pujara was included in the playing eleven for the second Test. He didn’t change the side’s fortune in a lopsided inning and 159 run defeat in the second Test though, but the selectors stuck with him for the remainder of the 5-match series.
Pujara repaid that faith with a half-century in the third Test and a century in a losing cause in the 4th. Pujara ended up with 278 runs at an average of 39.71 in that series, and his average was second only to Kohli’s amongst all batsmen who had scored 150 runs or more in the series.
In the build-up to India’s tour of Australia, it was all about Captain Kohli, and his menacing flurry of shots, his unparalleled repertoire, and his unwavering will to flatten the Aussie attack and become the first Indian captain to win a series in Australia. Maybe the Australians bought into the hype as well, and over-prepared for Kohli, completely ignoring the other Indian batting hero, the Dark Knight — Cheteshwar Pujara.
If Kohli is India’s Superman, who is susceptible only to Kryptonite, Pujara is the Hero India needs but probably doesn’t deserve. He has often willed his side out of dire situations and has never been backed enough by his selectors or countrymen for his placid dedication. He may be a misfit in India’s current batting lineup, with probably the most limited range of shots, but cometh the moment, he has risen to the occasion.
This Border-Gavaskar Trophy has had the cricketing world rave about the determination of this man. His unwavering will to toil and tire the opposition out, deflate their morale and feed off their sweat to score big runs. Not much has changed for this humble man through the course of the year in terms of his own perception though, he is still the same ChePu, the man who comes to the crease to spend big minutes and score runs at his pace.
He is still the hardworking anti-thesis of King Kohli’s attacking flair. That being said though, he has not rushed to suit the evolving game’s demands, he has turned the clock to make the game work to his strengths. Three overseas centuries in India’s Kryptonite later, Pujara is the hero Kohli needs, and for all of Kohli’s batting brilliance, the hero he also deserves.