New Delhi, Jan 25: Senior India off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin has thrown a big challenge to his Test teammate Cheteshwar Pujara ahead of the highly-anticipated series against England at home. India will host England in a four-Test series which is going to be an exciting one because both the teams are coming back from an away tour win.
While India defeated the mighty Australians in their own backyard 2-1 to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy despite missing some of their key players. England, on the other hand, whitewashed Sri Lanka in the Two-Test series with a six-wicket win in the second Test on Monday (January 25) in Galle. Captain Joe Root led a spirited English side from the front as he slammed a double century in the opening Test and followed it up with another daddy hundred in the second.
England's fantastic performance on the turning tracks in Sri Lanka will bode well for the India-England series and the experts believe there are no clear favourites. Despite the hosts having an edge at home, many believe the upcoming series - which is also a part of the ICC Test Championship - is set up nicely.
Pujara - who turned 33 today - was the fulcrum of India's batting Down Under and played his trademark proper Test cricket knocks against the Aussies to help his team create history in the just-concluded series in Australia.
Pujara weathered more than 900 deliveries in the four-Test matches and stood like a rock against a quality Australian bowling attack, which had a combined experience of more than a thousand Test scalps. The cricketer didn't play a single extravagant shot in all the eight innings he batted Down Under and it is the very reason that Ashwin has thrown a challenge for Pujara.
Ashwin has challenged the Saurashtra batsman to step down the track and go over the top against any spinner against England and if he manages to do so, the Tamil Nadu cricketer will shave half his moustache.
During a conversation with India's batting coach Vikram Rathour on his official YouTube channel, Ashwin asked the batting coach, "Will we ever see Pujara hit an off-spinner over the top?"
"Work-in-progress. I'm trying to convince him that at least once go over the top. He is still not convinced, he is giving me great reasons," Rathour replied.
"If he goes over the top against Moeen Ali or any other spinner stepping down the wicket in this English series that we gonna play, I will take half my moustache out and come to play the game. This is an open challenge," Ashwin said jokingly.
To which Rathour said, "That's a great challenge to put across. Let's hope that he takes it up. I don't think he will take it up."
Pujara's grit and determination was there for everyone to see in the fourth and final Test in Brisbane as he remained strong as a fortress even after receiving numerous body blows.
Pujara - who is often criticised for his defensive approach and slow strike rate - batted like a warrior to ensure an improbable India win at the Gabba - where the Australians had been unbeaten for the last 32 years. The right-handed batsman took the body blows and tired the Australia bowlers, who were trying to break into the Indian lower-order - out with his gritty knock of 56 in the fourth innings as India chased 328.
"Because for some reason you really sledge him. I don't know why. What the deal there? You really go after him all the time. And him being one of my favourite players in the team. I love his attitude. The way he bats, the way he prepares actually he is a coach's dream actually. So, I have to defend him against you. I think no praise is enough for the way he batted in the last Test match. The way he responded to all those short balls and all injuries that he had," Rathour said.
Ashwin explained why he sledges Pujara in the team, he said, "Because what happens is, every time an opponent like Nathan Lyon is bowling, Pujji makes it so heart throbbing for me. Every time the ball goes up in the air, I am like 'You know what? Nobody plays like this man. You are making him look like unplayable.' And eventually, everybody will think that I'm not able to make the other batsmen bat like this."
"He does not. I mean, he handles him really, really well. And the numbers show that. he is averaging 50 plus against him. So, he has done well against him and that's his way of playing. He has a very set method. He is a stubborn character and that is his strength as well," Rathour said.
The four-Test series between India and England begins from February 5 at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.