Piyush definitely has to raise the bar - Raina
It will soon be three years to the day since Piyush Chawla last played a Test match. Three months after that, it will be five years since he last played an ODI. Chawla first appeared on the international circuit almost ten years ago now, but he has faded away and is nowhere near India selection for now.
This season, he has done little to change that, having played all six Ranji Trophy matches for Uttar Pradesh with only six wickets to his name. In a dominating bowling performance in which UP dismissed Gujarat for 100 and 275, Chawla was hardly required in the first innings and leaked 61 runs in nine overs in the second. Against Mumbai in the next round, he got to bowl 33 overs but conceded another 135 runs for one wicket. And against Tamil Nadu in the last match, he bowled 19 overs for only one wicket again.
Overall, he has gone wicketless in six of the ten innings he has bowled in, and that does not augur well for any bowler the captain may want to fall back on, to utilise his international experience.
"Definitely he has to raise his bar, he has to work hard," UP captain Suresh Raina said on the eve of their match against Punjab in Kanpur. "He is bowling well, but since he's not getting wickets it seems like he's not bowling well. Once you play for India and then for domestic, you have to work hard and your thinking is very important - how you respect the game, how disciplined you are in those things. He has worked really hard in the last two games that I have seen against Mumbai and Tamil Nadu."
Chawla's run has been better in T20 cricket, admittedly: he was the second-highest wicket-taker for Kolkata Knight Riders in the last two IPLs, and struck the winning runs in the final last year. His batting in this season's Ranji Trophy has been decent as well, but it may not keep him in the side for too long if he continues to fail to pick up wickets, Raina was clear about that.
"If Piyush doesn't do well in two matches, definitely the selectors have to think what to do," Raina said. "Youngsters are doing very well for UP, so seniors have to step up their game and there's pressure in the dressing room.
"He will have to step up. As a professional, when you do well in the IPL, you have to do it for UP - whether as a player of CSK, or of Air India team, or Indian team. I've learnt from my seniors that you have to give whatever you have. Cricket is one game in which you have to be disciplined, very committed and Piyush has that. He has the discipline and he concentrates a lot but he has to work hard on his bowling."
The competition among the UP spinners has been heating up. Twenty-year-old chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav has taken 11 wickets in four matches, and left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar has two five-fors in four innings to take his wickets tally to 14. With a seamer-friendly pitch expected in Kanpur over the next four days, the pressure on Chawla is only mounting.
Raina agreed but stressed he was confident of Chawla's skills, calling him a "match-winner". He backed the legspinner like a captain often does to boost the morale of his players, saying it was just a matter of time before Chawla performed.
"He has been a match-winning player for us. For so many years he has done really well for UP. As a captain, as I've seen him play from Under-16s and Under-19s.
"I think it's a matter of one or two wickets, he's a momentum player. He has always done well for UP or in the Challenger Trophy, or for India - like in the World Cup. Once he does well in one match, he will be on track."
The Green Park pitch prepared for the match starting on Monday wore a green tinge, but was dry, and Raina was non-committal on what combination he would play.
"I haven't seen the wicket yet and will decide the team composition tomorrow morning after seeing the wicket because it might change overnight. I'll see it in the morning and go by my instinct.
"As a captain I now have a chance to think about how to go about things, so I need to find the winning combination. There are two matches and if we win those, we will qualify [for the knockouts] I guess. So we need to do really well."
And so, for Chawla, right now it is not about whether he can make an international comeback sometime soon, but if he can retain his place in the UP XI. And there's only one way to do it - take wickets.
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo