Cheteshwar Pujara is on the verge of his 50th Test match for India. The landmark brings both a sense of sadness and relief. The boy wonder from Rajkot, the man who was the highest run-getter in 2006 U19 World Cup, the one who stormed the domestic scene with three triple hundreds in 2008, that guy should have played a few more Tests for India by now.
But then we shouldn’t get too greedy. A pure Test cricket technician, almost a one of his kind batsman in this era lasting this long is surely a reason to celebrate.
On a personal level, one of the benefits of playing this long is the fact that Pujara’s father is “less strict” on him now. "My father has always been my best and worst critic. At times, he has been very critical but now we have come to an understanding, where we always speak and we come to a conclusion. And he is not very strict anymore", said Pujara on the verge of reaching the fifty Test landmark.
We are glad his father is not as harsh as Kshema Sangakkara, Kumar Sangakkara’s dad who thought his son hadn’t fulfilled his potential.
Pujara has had more than a fair share of tough times in his life. As a young boy, his father wanted him to play more games than what Rajkot could offer. The struggles of staying at borrowed flats and travelling in local trains to find a game hardened young Pujara.
Harder times were yet to come when Pujara lost his mother to breast cancer at the age of 17. His mother was also his spiritual guru and guiding light and it was a tough blow to handle for the teenager. When Pujara didn’t want to play a game five days after his mother’s death, his father reminded him that his mother would have wanted him to. Pujara responded by scoring a hundred three games later.
Perhaps, it was this familiarity and appreciation of pain, suffering and grit that allows Pujara to play like he did at Bengaluru earlier this year. He was up against a difficult pitch and an Australian side that was spitting fire after taking an early lead in the series. Pujara responded with a match winning 92, an innings he rated higher than the double hundred he scored later in the series.
Despite having the highest Test average among all current Indian cricketers, it still seems Pujara has something to prove every time he goes out to bat. Again it’s something he got used to early on in his career when his critics played down his huge scores and thought he had it easy due to the flat wickets he played on.
Pujara made his Test debut in 2010, having already played more than 50 first class games and averaging more than 60. In the second innings, Pujara was promoted up the order to replace his idol Rahul Dravid at number three. He responded by scoring a classy 72, securing the game for his team. Having already developed a cult owing to his first-class exploits, fans were relieved that “Che”, as he was called in social media circles, had finally arrived.
But life hadn’t chosen Pujara for a smooth ride. Soon after his debut, Pujara suffered a knee injury and had to undergo surgery. That was followed by an injury and a surgery on the other knee. Pujara talks grimly about those times, "Getting injured was the most challenging time of my career. I was out for six months due to a knee injury and then again in 2011 when I was out for another six months. Overall, I wasn't able to play for a year, which was really tough on me".
Despite his injury lay-offs Pujara kept coming back to the team and kept getting big hundreds. After top scoring for India on their tour to South Africa in 2013, it seemed Pujara has answered his critics once and for all now but it wasn’t to be.
2014 bought a series of low scores against New Zealand, England and Australia. Pujara was developing a habit of getting starts and not capitalising on them. Critics, as usual, were quick to pounce blaming his slow scoring rate that is not adequate to the demands of modern cricket.
Pujara found assurance in veterans who encouraged him to play the way he does. Recalling his interaction with Dravid, Pujara says, "There was nothing wrong with my technique because after that I spoke to Rahul (Dravid) Bhai, who just told me that you should continue the way you have been playing. I just trusted my game, worked hard on it and I was just one inning away".
That one inning came in 2015 when Pujara, making his come back as a makeshift opener scored 145 out of a team total of 312. Pujara had once again fought back to reclaim his place under the sun when doubters had relegated him to the life of a journeyman.
It seemed Pujara has now cemented his place in the team for a long time now. Then, during the tour of West Indies Pujara was again dropped in favour of Rohit Sharma. His captain mincing no words while suggesting Rohit’s ability to score quick runs helped him get the nod over Pujara.
For a team man like Pujara that unceremonious drop was painful. He hadn’t scored a big hundred for a while but he was making useful contributions to the team and isn’t Test match batting more about batting sessions than strike rates?
Pujara finally found a backer when Anil Kumble joined the team as head coach. Kumble openly differed with the captain when he doesn’t understand the fuss around strike rates. Pujara opened up to Kumble like no other national coach before him and worked on mental aspects of performing at the highest level, acknowledging some of his mistakes and identifying the strengths he has to stick irrespective of whether he is in or out of the team.
Pujara prospered in the 2016-17 season, having found strong support from the team management and became the most consistent run-getter in the home series against New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia. In Sri Lanka, he has again started off brilliantly with a big hundred in the first Test.
The Rajkot batsman seems to be in the middle of the best phase of his Test career. More than the runs, he seems more relaxed in the middle than ever before. Pujara is approaching 30 now. Many experts believe it’s generally the age where Test batsmen peak.
Despite his recent successes, one can be sure that Pujara isn’t going to be complacent. He has learnt it the hard way to never take success for granted. He has shared a dressing room with legends who pursued excellence with the same intensity after scoring 10,000 Test runs as they did on their debut.
Speaking of Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid, Pujara says, "From the legends, one thing I learnt was that they always worked hard on their game. Many of them scored more than 10,000 runs and they way they were still working hard on the game, always trying to improve their game. They were all grounded and they were trying to support young players. Their work ethic, determination and pride in representing the country was always there".
There are words of wisdom from Pujara and words of assurance for his fans in knowing that he hasn’t lost one bit of his fighting spirit. 50 Tests is just a milestone for Pujara, he needs to cross the landmark of 100 and make it a big one.