November 7, 2010

The Pujara and Johnson conundrums

India have a dilemma about their No. 3 spot and Australia on how best to use their strike bowler

With important series looming, imaginative and thoughtful selection could very well be decisive for both India and Australia in the next few months.

Consequently, preferring Rahul Dravid over the highly impressive Cheteshwar Pujara for the first Test against New Zealand was a surprisingly timid move by the Indian panel.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ravi on November 11, 2010, 10:56 GMT

    @Hema_Adhikari : I was a little curious as to where these stats will lead me and hence another check in statsguru about performance of Indian batsmen *in* SA and surprise surprise, its Dinesh Karthik who leads the pack with a whopping average of 101!! A huge lead against the second man in list, VVS with 41.4! Kapil, Sachin, Sourav and Dravid follow. Sehwag averages a mere 26. I say we give Jaffer (who averages a healthy 30 in SA) a chance and drop Sehwag since as someone seems to be frequently reminding us Jaffer is the best batsman not in the Indian squad (I'm of course being very very very sarcastic). DK obviously makes a strong case for selection apparently. Jokes aside, its apparent that Indian batsmen have struggled in SA, so singularly pointing out RD's stats and saying he failed is unfair to him. Its obvious to me that since SA has been the 'never before conquered' land RD should be selected. Experience over new blood. Especially since we seem to be struggling against the NZers.

  • Mars on November 10, 2010, 18:52 GMT

    Lately, I have noticed that Rahul Dravid is getting hit by even the mediocre bowlers on his head. I am his fan and I am concerned about his safety more than anything else. His reflexes have become slow and now he is vulnerable against quality quicks. As the stats already quoated here clearly show he has never been able to deal with SA bouncy pitches and will be a sitting duck most of the time as he has the tendency to keep finding the fielders and not gaps unlike a Laxman. He is a nice guy and all but test cricket is not a charity.

  • Hema on November 10, 2010, 18:45 GMT

    @ Ravi, A batsman averaging low 30's overall and low 20s on the last tour at the age of 38 and blatantly out-of-form can not be considered batting mainstay for crucial momemntum building position of number 3 in test cricket. Point is simple.

  • Ravi on November 10, 2010, 18:26 GMT

    Even going by stats, RD has been averaging over 57 since Jan 2009. He has definitely been one of THE reasons for India achieving its current status alongwith Sachin etc. Knocking him out now just because he's having a difficult year is very very very wrong. Yes, Cricket is a team sport and winning is what is important but what is the incentive for great consistent performances over the years? The likes of Pujara will never survive with so much pressure for performance. There are already calls for the ouster of Gambhir and Raina. Gambhir after his exceptional record the past two years is rewarded for a couple of bad series like this?

    Trust is essential for a team's success. Trust a player. Let him know that he will be in the squad even if he fails a couple of times and he will definitely rise and shine. Scare him and he will make blunders. An occasional wake up call is necessary, but not to the likes of Dravi/Sachin without whom we would have been reeling somewhere alongside Pak/WI/NZ

  • Ravi on November 10, 2010, 18:08 GMT

    @Hema_Adhikari : Yes *those* stats are okay, but the away stats you quoted of RD's from 2006-10 are blatantly false.

    And I'll give you one better. The only Indian batsmen to average over 40 against SA, ever, are Irfan, Sehwag, Dinesh Karthik, Azhar and Kapil Dev. So I'm sure you have the atting lineup for SA all ready then? Pathan and Sehwag will open? We can recall Azhar and Kapil back into the middle order and DK can take over the now much argued No.3 spot? Now change the qualification to 'has played more than 5 matches' and we'll have Sehwag, Azhar, Sachin, Dhoni, Laxman and Dravid in that order.

    Of course as someone down the list has pointed out Sachin screwed up against the Lankans in '08 but was still chosen as "better sense prevailed" in the '10 tour. Of course by your logic of selecting a player solely based on his stats against a particular team Sachin himself should be dropped for the series against SA, he averages a meagre 38 and change against SA and another low 39 in SA

  • Sadashiv on November 10, 2010, 16:52 GMT

    Dravid has been useless for quite some time now. In SA he has never performed well even when he was at his peak. Its just like Sanjay Manjerekar in Australia, all this great technique and stuff and no scoring ultimately creates enough pressure for the dismissal. It is just the matter of that one ball arriving!

  • Dummy4 on November 10, 2010, 15:57 GMT

    No batsman in the present world can repalce dravid at no.3 position, he is the best you can see the stats. He has the mettle to face the fast bowlers anywhere in the world at anytime in the day or night. If you wake him up in the midnight and tell him to bat he will give you the best defence to any bowler who bowls at him.

  • Hema on November 10, 2010, 14:53 GMT

    My stats are accurate as they are taken from cricinfo stats guru: You can try it yourself if you want

    Overall record of RD against SA in SA:

    filtered 1996-2007 8 504 148 33.60 1

    He averages 33 against them and that was when he was in his prime! What will he do now when he is averaging in low 30s on pitches like Motera against bowling attack like NZ. Lets not get too emotional and think about it in objective manner.

  • Jay on November 10, 2010, 13:41 GMT

    (Contd). Gary adds: "There are enough young players out there but it will take them a few years to get the type of experience required to build a successful Test career. There might be a rebuilding phase in India in two years' time, but every team has to go through that, especially when great players retire." Meaning it takes years to develop players and he appreciates the Staying Power of the veterans, which is the key to stability and success. Regarding specific players, Gary states: "Yes, there are some really good players. You will have Sehwag, Gambhir, Dhoni, Raina, along with the likes of Ishant, Vijay, Pujara and others. Yes, you might miss out on a Laxman batting in a crucial situation to win you a game, but someone like Suresh Raina has done it plenty of times in one-dayers so there is no reason why he can't transfer it to a Test match." Pujara is only one among several young guns. Bottom line: Team India is in safe hands. We don't need the Chappell Brothers to mess it up.

  • Munawar on November 10, 2010, 13:32 GMT

    Laxman is perhaps the best batsman in world right now. Gambhir must make way for Jaffer. It's time to get the country's best bat who is not in the team back into the team. Technically and temperamentally Jaffer is the most well equipped for No.2 position and is a much better option than Vijay in Tests. Dravid must retire now. He clearly is struggling these days. Time for him to bid adieu. Pujara must be brought back in. Raina must go. He is good for ODIs and T20s but doesn't have the technique or temperament for Tests. No, Yuvraj shouldn't replace Raina. Yuvraj has got enough Test chances and is good for ODIs & T20s like Raina. Rohit like Yuvraj doesn't merit a Test place either. Kaif deserves a Test chance provided Dhoni agrees. Kaif as a wounded tiger will grab the opportunity with both hands and could be a threat for MSD as a potential future Test captain. Else Badrinath merits a Test cap. Ishant needs to be brought back in the Test XI. He is a special talent. Ojha must be persisted

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