So far in the series, Kane Williamson has scored a couple of 70s. His strike rate is in the 80s but in both ODIs he got out before the 35th over. While his counterpart, India’s No.3 Virat Kohli, has scored more runs at a faster pace while lasting longer — he averages 100 with a strike rate of 114 — Williamson has somehow been the difference between the sides.
In the crowd of hard-hitters in this series who will also be on the wish-list of most T20 stake holders, the more judicious strokemaker, Williamson, stands out. He rotates the strike, maintains the run-rate and avoids the mid-inning collapse. He plays the pace-maker to the several sprinters in the New Zealand ranks.
India too has sprinters to match New Zealand’s ‘Club 100 strike rate’ players —Jesse Ryder, Brendon McCullum and Corey Anderson — stride for stride. But no Williamson. Actually, they have one at home in Cheteshwar Pujara, who during the recent South Africa tour proved his worth against 150 kmph pace (Steyn), steep bounce (Morkel) and incisive swing (Philander). He also molds his game to suit varying conditions and different match-situations. So why isn’t he in the playing XI or even on the tour party?
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Among the many mysteries connected to the Indian cricket, the national selectors’ long-standing reluctance to give Pujara the India blues ranks quite high. So does the puzzling decision to stick to batsmen (read Suresh Raina) with well-documented weakness (short-ball) for so long (187 ODIs). Roles have changed and the script altered so that the likes of Raina, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane fit into the cast. Pujara, meanwhile, waits for his first ODI audition.
Pujara’s List A average of 54, a figure that no one can match in the present Indian team, hasn’t impressed chairman Sandeep Patil. Even in Tests, he scores at a brisk pace, regardless of the match situation. On the lively Wanderers track, his 153 came at a better strike rate than Kohli’s 96. Pressure situations bring the best out of him. Exhibit A: His 82 off 92 balls on the tricky Kotla track against a quality Australian bowling attack in the fourth innings.
Looking at his body of work, Pujara needs to be in the scheme of things for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The itinerary sees India play at grounds of varying dimensions and conditions. With two new balls, it wouldn’t be easy. They travel to intimidating MCG, pacy Perth, spin-friendly Sydney, windy Wellington, cloudy Hamilton and awkwardly-shaped Auckland. For this road trip in February-March next year, India needs Pujara. As for the pampered under-acheivers, they can be rested and kept fresh for the IPL to follow.
Sandeep is National Sports Editor