The Pujara and Johnson conundrums
With important series looming, imaginative and thoughtful selection could very well be decisive for both India and Australia in the next few months.
Pujara deservedly received rave reviews for both his technique and temperament in his match-clinching innings against Australia last month. While this isn't the Australian attack of the Shane Warne-Glenn McGrath era, they still don't go down without a fight. Pujara matched the Australians for aggression and outwitted Ricky Ponting's bowlers in what was an enterprising and influential knock. His confidence was high after that innings, and if ever there was a right time to reward a young player, it was in the first Test against New Zealand.
However, the Indian selectors opted for a safety-first move when the situation cried out for a bit of imagination. Especially considering MS Dhoni promoted Pujara to No. 3 against Australia with such stunning results.
At this stage of his career, Dravid is not the ideal player to bat at No. 3 in South Africa. He's been hanging on by his fingernails for a while now and although he's never been a dominant player, he has been even more prone to periods of stagnation in his declining years. South Africa's strategy is based on tying batsmen down and reducing the flow of runs to a trickle. If Dravid struggles and scores slowly, he'll play right into their hands.
It seems pointless to have Virender Sehwag rattle the opposition with mercurial strokeplay at the top of the order and then risk allowing the bowling side back into the contest while Dravid fights for survival.
The impressive way Pujara played the horizontal bat shots was another reason to give him every opportunity to succeed before touring South Africa. If India are to win that tough tour, someone at the top of the order will need to defuse the South African pace attack.
If Pujara had failed to grasp the opportunity against New Zealand then the selectors always had the option of returning Dravid to the middle order and using the more aggressive Laxman at No. 3 in South Africa.
Dravid's hundred against the lamentable New Zealanders was predictable, but it proved nothing - apart from boosting his statistics. His selection was an opportunity wasted.
Australia's plight is an entirely different case.
Where India are winning and finding it difficult to change a successful combination, Australia are losing, and the selectors are desperate to unearth a couple of young players who can help arrest the slide.
However, the selectors face a dilemma. A loss at home to England will be viewed by the public as a calamity on the order of the global financial crisis. The selectors are walking a high wire without a safety net as they totter between gambling on youth from the outset and hoping the experienced players rediscover the art of winning in the nick of time. A move to the former policy after the latter fails would be completing the act only after the safety net had been discovered.
The other problem for the Australian selectors is that, while most of the controversy has surrounded the middle-order batting, the clue to solving the puzzle may well be the bowling attack. The lack of form from Mitchell Johnson is a big concern. He has been the strike bowler since Brett Lee's departure, but his ambushes have been far less frequent of late. Do the selectors gamble on the hope that the extra pace and bounce of Australian pitches will help Johnson rediscover his wicket-taking form or do they take the radical step of omitting their most successful bowler?
They might compromise with a moderate gamble. Omit Marcus North, play Steven Smith and retain Johnson. This way you don't weaken the batting too much, with Brad Haddin in the No. 6 spot, and you give the bowling more variety. It would also allow Ponting to use Johnson purely as a strike bowler, in short sharp bursts.
The really good selectors have a knack for seeing the current requirements while also visualising what's needed in the future. Another reason why it's more important to spend lavishly to get the right selectors rather than reward a coach with a big contract.
Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist