Among all the slots vacated by the greats, the hardest to fill was the No 3 spot. With all due credit to Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman, the manner in which Rahul Dravid performed the anchor role from that pivotal slot was exemplary. After all it is one of the cliches of cricket that the most important position is one down and that is where you normally have the team’s best batsman. Don Bradman batted at No 3, so little else need be said.
Finding someone to fit in Dravid’s shoes would normally have been Mission Impossible and may be taken years and it is Indian cricket’s good fortune that Cheteshwar Pujara happened to be around. Virat Kohli might be the one to hog the headlines and make it to Page 3 or appear in more ads and endorsements but cricket wise there is little doubt that the Indian team has a gem in Pujara.
This is not to take away anything from Kohli who is not just a long term prospect but also plays exciting cricket. His stroke play is assured, he is mentally tough, his confidence borders on arrogance and in the no-nonsense cricketing world of today where no quarter is asked for and none given, we certainly need a Miandad-type street fighter like him.
There is however a thin line between being aggressive and crossing the line of acceptable behaviour and Kohli has quite often crossed it. If he could learn to curb his temper, he could emerge as an even better batsman and his claims for the national captaincy would be that much more serious.
There is no such problem with Pujara however for he has a monk like calm, a composure that cannot fail to win admiration. Phlegmatic by nature and not the kind to be disturbed whatever the provocation, Pujara is a picture of restrained and controlled behaviour, a trait very rare these days.
In a way this helps him to concentrate that much more easily on the job at hand which is to bat for long hours, put up the runs on the board at a regular rate and anchor the team’s progress from the crucial slot. That is not to say that Pujara cannot accelerate or help build upon the advantage of a good start by the openers. This is why he makes for such an admirable No 3.
Pujara’s batting is built around scientific principles. His approach is the very apotheosis of text book batting, the quality most essential for cricket’s traditional format. Clearly, for all the thrilling stroke play or pyrotechnics displayed by the others in the line-up, he is the most valuable batsman in the side.
It used to be said that what Indian cricket would do without Dravid was too frightening to contemplate. The sobriquet 'The Wall' was unfailingly accurate as it conveyed the image of a man who did not sell his wicket cheaply; left to him, he would not like to sell his wicket at all. Much the same can be said about Pujara.
An ideal temperament allied to a water tight technique and the ability to play all the strokes makes Pujara a tough proposition for the best of bowlers. The manner in which he handled the pace of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander was an object lesson in the art of batsmanship. Pujara was spot on in his judgment when it came to the deliveries to leave, those to play defensively and those off which he could score.
To the spinners his nimble footwork saw him get to the pitch of the ball but very rarely did he lift the ball. His rise to the No 5 spot in the latest ICC rankings list is just reward for his recent sterling displays but then Pujara has been around for some time and going by his record he will be around for a long time.
Anyone who can average 66 after 17 Tests with six centuries (including two double hundreds) is clearly a top notch player. But then the groundwork for Pujara’s great showing in the Test arena was laid at the first class level. He averages 63 from as many as 91 matches with 26 hundreds.
Three triple hundreds – including one of 352, the sixth highest score by an Indian batsman in first class cricket – mark him out as a throwback to the eras gone by. But he is very much professional in outlook and approach, very keen to keep himself fit so that he can prove his worth to a side so much dependent on him.
If anything he is going from strength to strength. In eight Tests last year he scored 829 runs at an average of 56 with three centuries and three half centuries, a performance that saw him being awarded the ICC Emerging Player of the Year award.
If his superb showing in South Africa is any indication, Pujara should be a success in New Zealand, England and Australia for he is no flat track bully who makes the most of weak opposition. On the contrary, the bigger the stage the better he performs. Indian cricket followers need not be worried about the No 3 slot for he is already a worthy successor to Dravid.
In their own different ways Pujara and Kohli hold the key to India’s batting fortunes in the future.