London, June 5
While 14 members of Indias squad for the World Test Championship (WTC) Final were busy playing for their respective teams in IPL 2023, veteran top-order batter Cheteshwar Pujara was busy acclimatising to conditions in England by playing for Sussex in the second division of County Championship.
With the World Test Championship final set to begin at The Oval on Wednesday, head coach Rahul Dravid revealed they are trying to figure out how to use the valuable inputs from Pujara during his County Championship stint and employ them against Pat Cummins-led Australia.
Pujara scored three centuries while scoring 545 from eight innings for Sussex till now in the County Championship. Apart from his form coming back, Pujara now emerges as a vital figure in the Indian team from the local information point of view.
"Certainly we've had conversations with Puji (Pujara) - about captaincy, batting, but also he leads Sussex. So he's also got a good handle on in terms of the kind of tactics and the strategy that's used by a lot of the county bowlers that he's played with. So we've had some conversations and discussions obviously with him in and around that and we'll see how we can maybe incorporate some of that (inputs)," said Dravid in the press conference.
At the same time, he reminded us that India won't steer away from the simple basics of the game. "It doesn't drastically change some of the basics of the game. They always remain the same. You still got to hit the top of our stump irrespective of whatever you do."
"You might come up with a lot of gimmicks, but sometimes the simple things always stay simple. For us, the key is to try and execute those simple things really well over the course of five days. If we do that, then I think we'll have a good Test match."
Dravid also appreciated the efforts Pujara has put in to stay in rhythm while playing the longer format of the game. After being left out of the squad for the home series against Sri Lanka last year, Pujara forced his way back into the side for the rescheduled fifth Test against England after scoring 720 runs in just five matches with an outstanding average of 120 for Sussex in County Championship.
Since then, he hasn't looked back and brought up a century against Bangladesh in Chattogram and completed a century of Test appearances against Australia at New Delhi in February.
"In terms of being a one-format player, it's not easy. You know, having experienced that probably towards the last end of my career as well. It's not easy because sometimes the matches that you play are few and far between. But the good thing with Puji is that he continues to find a way to play cricket. I think one of the things that's really stood out for me is he finds a way to play Ranji Trophy cricket whenever he can."
"Even during our season, he's taken the trouble, and taken the challenge of coming and playing county cricket here. He's taken on a leadership role at Sussex as well. So he recognizes the fact that he's got to try and keep playing cricket because otherwise, the gaps might be quite a lot in between. He's probably someone who's played a lot of cricket irrespective of not having played the IPL," stated Dravid.
Another veteran who would be keen to make a splash on coming back to the Test team is Ajinkya Rahane, who has reinvented himself and found form as a powerful striker of the ball during Chennai Super Kings' run to the trophy in IPL 2023.
Rahane made 49 and 15 in the WTC final against New Zealand in 2021, and a lean run in the format meant he last played a Test in January 2022 against South Africa. He returned to the domestic cricket grind, starting with the Duleep Trophy in September 2022, making 250 runs in five innings, including an unbeaten 207 for West Zone.
In the 2022/23 Ranji Trophy, Rahane was Mumbai's leading run-scorer with 634 runs from seven matches, including a double-century against Hyderabad, and 191 against Assam, at an average of 57.63. In a way, despite many contenders coming in, India are fielding the same batters in number three, four and five positions - Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rahane - when they started this WTC cycle.
Though his return to the Test team for the marquee clash was pushed around by India not having a reliable middle-order batting option in the absence of KL Rahul and Shreyas Iyer, Dravid highlighted the attributes Rahane brings to the table and how he wants him to not treat the match as a make-or-break one.
"Firstly it's good to have him. We've had a few injuries which have probably led to him having the opportunity to come back into the squad. Great for us to have someone of his quality back. He brings obviously a lot of that experience, he brings proven performance in overseas conditions. Even in England, he's played some terrific innings for us. He brings terrific catching in the slips as well to the group."
"He just brings his personality to the group as well which is really important. He's led the team to considerable success. So, it's just great to have someone like him around here. Again, I wouldn't want him to approach this as just a one-off. Sometimes you get dropped from teams and you make a comeback and you come back and you can play for as long as you're playing well and as long as you're performing."
"It's not written in stone or rules that you only get one match. He puts in a good performance, which really shows what he's got. Who knows, even when people come back from injury, you never know what can happen. So again, from my point of view, it's not really only about this match. Yes this match is important but then in the larger context of things there's a lot of cricket to be played further down the road as well," he concluded.