With just over 12 months to go for the 2015 World Cup, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team are preparing themselves to defend their coveted crown which they won at home nearly three years back. Dhoni himself has voiced his indispensability in the current team and how he is best suited to lead the team in Australia and New Zealand come Valentine's Day next year. True. However, if we glance at Dhoni's mates in current ODI team, who are playing a five-match series in New Zealand, one would wonder if this is the best possible batting combination good enough to counter the fast and bouncy conditions Down Under.
The year 2013 threw up a lot of positives for Indian limited-overs batting: A fresh pair of opening batsmen with loads of success and the 'Bradmanesque' form of their superstar Virat Kohli. The skipper continued his good form of taking the match right down to the wire and chase down targets whenever the top order failed, which was seldom.
If anything, the middle order looked far from settled. That could be the biggest worrying point in this year of build-up and preparation for the 2015 World Cup. Although, one can argue that India's 4, 5 and 6 that did not get a decent enough hit as the top-3 Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli did the bulk of the batting. Correspondingly, the middle order at most times was either left untested or incapable against genuine good bowling - be it facing Mitchell Johnson at home or Dale Steyn and Co. in South Africa. India can ill afford a similar scenario during cricket's biggest extravaganza.
In the last one year, Dhoni's biggest complaint from his batsmen has been poor shot selection and the inability at times to go on and win the game, for example, most recently in the first ODI at Napier which the visitors lost by 24 runs, despite a rollicking 123 from Kohli.
As Suresh Raina's form dwindled, Yuvraj Singh lost his spot, new combinations have been tried by the team management. Namely, Raina being promoted up to No.4 ahead of Yuvraj, a move that was short-lived. Dhoni would hope that Ajinkya Rahane, who has risen in the pecking order after a fighting 96 in the Durban Test, comes good in the chances he is likely to get at No.4 and 5, a spot almost alien to him as he started off as an opener back in 2011-12.
Expectantly, India's troubles have come overseas. However, Dhoni mustn't forget that he can have a stabilizing batsman in Cheteshwar Pujara - India's highest Test run getter in 2013 and ICC's emerging Player of the Year.
In Pujara, India will get a solid option at No.4, who will hold the innings together, whenever the openers fizzle. Experts say that if a player can master Test cricket, he would have no difficulty adjusting to the shorter formats. With 9 hundreds and 18 fifties to his name in 68 List-A games, Pujara does not have the worst average at 55. Pujara deserves a better treatment in the ODI side than just two hits against Zimbabwe last year and not be recalled again.
Apart from Kohli, none of the Indian batsmen in the top-5 have presented themselves as a 'dependable' option. In close 190 ODIs, Raina still averages 35 and worryingly under 30 away from home. Rahane is still untested in the middle order. Ravindra Jadeja, the more he is batting, he is looking like a better bowler rather than a batting all-rounder. Perhaps that's the reason why former India skipper Sourav Ganguly called for Pujara's inclusion in the ODI team.
For any detractors who would say the Saurashtra run machine is too slow for the ODI game, Pujara has proven in Tests that once he is set, he can get on a roll and quickly. His 50 in the Johannesburg Test came in 127 balls but his second fifty came off just 41.
Dhoni has time and again backed his batsmen's aggressive style of play, even when it has spelled doom for the team. Pujara may not fit in Dhoni's scheme of 'play your shots freely' but if responsible batting and proper shot selection is Dhoni's need, Pujara has just the right ingredients to answer the call. Not just in the middle order, Pujara can be used as a reassuring opener if somewhere down the line the form of Dhawan or Rohit, both of whom are proving to be home ground bullies, diminishes.
If Pujara is in the selector's radar for the 2015 World Cup, he should be recalled now to give him ample time to get settled in the ODI side rather use him as a back-up option closer to the mega event. Whichever route the selectors take, Pujara will be ready to make it count.