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Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara face fresh challenge in South Africa Test series

Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, the new core of the Indian cricket team, face a stern challenge in the series against South Africa but the likes of Kohli and Rahane have an average in excess of 60

cricket Updated: Dec 29, 2017 18:22 IST
Somshuvra Laha
Somshuvra Laha
Hindustan Times, Cape Town
Virat Kohli,Ajinkya Rahane,Cheteshwar Pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, along with Ajinkya Rahane will hold the key for India as they face up to the challenge of the fast and pacy South African wickets.(BCCI)

It’s been four years since Sachin Tendulkar -- last of the Fab Four -- retired but India didn’t have to start from scratch thanks to the transition kicked off by Sourav Ganguly’s retirement in 2008. The change has been slow and its extent can be gauged from the fact that Murali Vijay and Ishant Sharma are the only two survivors of the playing XI in Ganguly’s last Test in Nagpur.

The batting order shakeup since 2008 has been gradual, involving Suresh Raina, Parthiv Patel, Abhinav Mukund and even Karun Nair, apart from the usual suspects. Rohit Sharma’s ability to churn out crucial hundreds makes him a super sub but that could change any time.

More settled looks the new core of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, who still have some way to go to be compared with the likes of Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and VVS Laxman. But since the tour of South Africa in 2013 was the first time India played a Test series without the illustrious quartet, assessing their potential seems timely.

Rise of Pujara, Kohli

Pujara and Kohli made their debut within a year of each other but both started at No 5. The retirements of Dravid and Laxman after the 2011-12 tour of Australia meant Pujara was immediately promoted to No 3, but Kohli continued to bat after Tendulkar. On debut, Rahane batted at No 5 as Pujara had to open in that game. In his next Test though -- in Johannesburg, 2013 -- Rahane came at No 6, after Rohit Sharma. Slowly but surely, Rahane has owned No 5 while Kohli rules at No 4.

Among the three, Rahane has the fewest centuries (9) but the fact that six of them came away from home adds extra value to those knocks. He may average just above 33 at home but since that number goes up to 53 away, India know they have a go-to man playing abroad.

Kohli, of course, is on the fast lane towards eclipsing all records, scoring 10 hundreds each at home and away. He seems to have overcome a tendency to play away from the body – a weakness England bowlers exploited to the hilt on the 2014 tour -- and also plays mostly along the ground.

Cheteshwar Pujara has just one century outside the sub-continent and he will be aiming to put in a stronger performance in tours to South Africa, England and Australia. ( AP )

Pujara away record

But Pujara, despite his enormous patience and ability to grind out the opposition once on top, doesn’t have the conversion going in his favour. One century outside the subcontinent --- in South Africa in 2013 --- in a seven-year career (in 17 Tests away from the sub-continent) doesn’t do justice to Pujara’s capability.

Debu Mitra, Pujara’s erstwhile coach at Saurashtra, however feels it will change soon. “He knows that he is going to the country where he had scored that century. It always helps mentally. I think Pujara is a much more evolved batsman and he should get runs in South Africa,” Mitra told Hindustan Times over phone.

Pujara was bogged down by questions over his strike rate in 2016, with Kohli saying he spoke to the batsman about the need to speed up. Anil Kumble, who was the coach, then put Pujara at ease, saying strike rate didn’t matter in Tests.

Mitra said Pujara has emerged a better batsman due to a few changes. “His strike rate has definitely improved. The biggest change in him though is that he is sweeping now. He never used to play that shot,” he said.

South African pitches this time of the year tend to be fast. But all three have the experience, backed by good averages -- 68 (Kohli), 69 (Rahane) and 44 (Pujara) -- that had almost won them a Test here the last time. Their roles too are pretty much defined -- Kohli is the spearhead, Pujara the grafter and Rahane is capable of switching between aggression and defence. With most of the boxes ticked this time around, India should be assured of a fighting chance to draw the series, if not win.

First Published: Dec 29, 2017 18:14 IST