Kolkata: When the national selectors sit down to pick the Indian squad for the decisive Test match of MAK Pataudi Trophy against England from July 1-5, they may be on the horns of a dilemma. The powers that-be had decided to move on from seniors like Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane when they dropped them from the home Test series against Sri Lanka, but ‘Puji’ - as the teammates call him - is now making waves in County cricket to make a case for himself.
The 34-year-old, who had been the rock of India’s red ball set-up for years as the quintessential No.3 and a key figure in their back-to-back away series wins in Australia, seems to have rediscovered himself in his ongoing stint with Sussex in the second division County Championship. A look at his sequence of scores tells it’s own story - 6, 201 not out, 109, 12, 203 and 170*,
When broken down, it means an awesome two double centuries and as many centuries in his first four matches - the last one coming against Middlesex albeit in a losing cause. Besides the runs, Pujara’s stint also grabbed the eyeballs because of his teammate and rival from Pakistan. His 100-run partnership with Mohammad Rizwan against Durham in the last game and a towring six during Shaheen Afridi’s incisive first spell last week had been trending on the social media.
All the noise over the ongoing IPL has failed to overshadow Pujara’s feat in the idllyic surroundings of County cricket - and there is a growing perception that it may be difficult to ignore this out-of-favour loyal soldier of Indian cricket after his success in English conditions in the early half of summer there. The erstwhile regime of Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri had given the Pujara-Rahane duo a long rope in view of their quality and experience, but a prolonged lean spell (barring some sporadic efforts) had finally made the current think tank look at younger options like Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer in their positions.
There could always be the pros and cons that if a recall of Pujara would be retrograde step, given the fact that India will be only playing five more Tests in the rest of the year (the England Test would be followed by a four-Test series at home against Australia later in the year). However, if performance is the crtiteron and no like-for-like replacement has not really set the stage on fire, then it will be difficult to ignore the self-effacing, team-first batter from Saurashtra.
For the moment, however, the words of admiration are pouring in. “What do great players do when out of India team? Knock the selectors’ doors with 100s and 200s like Pujara,” former Indian star Mohammed Kaif tweeted on Sunday. “Away from IPL glamour, a simple ‘forget me not’ message,” he added.
This is, of course, not the first time Pujara has taken up the opportunity to hone his skills in the County. He had failed to find a buyer in the IPL for seven years on the trot, despite often being in the best of form, and repeatedly sought recourse in the County to sharpen his game for what’s his calling card - Test cricket. The rewards for his patience and discipline had been handy as he now has the highest number of double centuries in first class cricket among Indian batters with 15 - a list which is topped by Sir Don Bradman with 37 of them. He is sixth in that all-time list, ahead of the likes of Brian Lara and Kumar Sangakkara at 13.
There could be, of course, question marks about the quality of attack which Pujara faced on his way to these three-figure knocks in the second tier of the Championship - whose standards had often been panned by former England greats themselves in recent past.
However, the game-time the Indian veteran had been enjoying in England can give him a headstart if he is eventually considered.