RAJKOT: Just about the time newly-landed England were braving a rousing reception from the local crowd, Cheteshwar Pujara was putting the finishing touches on a brutal Ranji Trophy mega knock. “Here, I had my plans. I wanted to get some practice for the ODI and so once I got my hundred I was in a positive mood and our team was safe, I decided to play freely."
Within a fortnight of hitting a 221-ball 203 against Madhya Pradesh, Pujara went on to complete a triple hundred at a strike rate of over 80 against a clueless Karnataka attack, making a persuasive case for a home-ground debut in Indian colours this Friday. The 24-year-old from Saurashtra replaced Virender Sehwag in the ODI line up and on current form looks like an ideal starter at No.3 to stabilize a jittery middle order.
Pujara’s inclusion, if it happens, would require the elimination of all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja from the eleven and appears to be a sane option considering his form and the state of Indian batting. Jadeja’s omission, however, will cause India to seek a fifth bowler in Yuvraj and Raina – a ploy that cost them a match against Pakistan recently. How MS Dhoni tackles this remains to be seen.
The rest of the Indian line up, which beat Pakistan in the third ODI, is unlikely to be tampered with: Gautam Gambhir and Ajinkya Rahane opening, Pujara, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina to follow, and MS Dhoni and R. Ashwin to consolidate. Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma will share the fast bowling duties and Bengal seamer Shami Ahmed, who sent in four maidens on debut at Delhi, is expected to hold his place ahead of Ashok Dinda.
England sense a chance
England will also have realized the opportunity ahead of them. A transitional Indian side gives them their best chance of winning their first ODI series on the sub-continent in almost 30 years. They also have the recent past to erase: whitewashes on the last two excursions and a 1-6 loss immediately before that. Another blanking here will hand India the No.1 ODI ranking, which England currently hold. Their batting is in old hands: Alastair Cook and Ian Bell (who came good in both lost practice matches) will open while Kevin Pietersen, having received a comprehensive contract, will return to his No.3 perch.
Dasher Eoin Morgan, all-rounder Samit Patel and wicket-keeper Craig Kieswetter comprise the rest of the batting, with all-rounders Tim Bresnan and Chris Woakes chipping in in the latter half. The young middle order batsmen Jos Buttler and Joe Root – who had been so impressive in the Test series – will also have their chances at some stage. The 21-year-old left-arm spinner Danny Briggs impressed Geoffery Boycott back in England and would love to have a bowl on India wickets.
The bowling appears green overall. The visitors are without James Anderson, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, while Stuart Broad will be available only for the last two matches. In which scenario, the pace of Steven Finn assumes even greater importance than usual. Finn struggled with injuries in the Test matches and made little impact on the two practice games at Delhi. He will be supplemented by Bresnan and either Stuart Meaker or Jade Dernbach, and by off-spinner James Tredwell.
The first ODI will be played at the brand new Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium, not far from the Saurashtra University Ground that witnnessed Pujara's merciless treatment of Karnakata's bowlers. Pujara proved hard to dismiss all through the Test series versus England and his recent domestic record reflects an ability to accelarate at will. Will he carry that form and intent into ODIs. Will he even get to play on Friday?
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