Cheteshwar-Pujara

The morning after Rajkot’s maiden tryst with the Indian Premier League, Cheteshwar Pujara, who was not among the 35,000 people who watched Gujarat Lions beat Rising Pune Supergiants at the Saurashtra Cricket Association Stadium, drove us from his cricket academy – off the Rajkot-Jamnagar Highway in Tragadi village and not far from the ground – to the airport. Cut-outs of Gujarat’s marquee players, including local boy Ravindra Jadeja, lined the road. Pujara’s absence among those was stark; it was impossible to not think of how he handled the snub of missing out on the homecoming of the cricketing carnival.

Minutes after Pujara left the airport, members of the two newest IPL franchises arrived to board their flight – the irony of his IPL absence was driven home. Jaydev Shah – son of Niranjan Shah, the doyen of Saurashtra cricket – with a Twenty20 batting average of 16.34 is a part of Gujarat’s roster. But Pujara, the most accomplished international batsman from this historically rich cricket region, with a List A average of 54.12 – second only to Michael Bevan – and 41 centuries at the senior level finds no place. Although he did not particularly set the IPL stage alight in previous editions and auction dynamics don’t encourage sentiment, Gujarat could have afforded Pujara’s base price of Rs 50 lakh as a local branding strategy.

“Initially I was a bit disappointed after missing out in the IPL auctions as I had worked very hard and had a good Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (the inter-state T20 competition where he was Saurashtra’s best batsman),” Cheteshwar tells Wisden India. “But, I didn’t get the opportunity and I can’t do much about it. The best thing is whatever work I have done to adapt to one-day and T20 format is paying off. I have played some T20 matches for Indian Oil and scored a hundred against Air India. Hopefully in the near future I will get an opportunity to prove myself.”

Meeting Pujara in Rajkot was on the agenda to get a first-hand idea of how he and his father, Arvind, a former first-class cricketer, have been diligently operating their academy. Built over six acres of land, the uniqueness of the place is that the coaching is free for participants. Its true contribution will be measured in a few years from now when students from the academy become successful in representative cricket.

“It was my father’s idea to help young cricketers without charging money. We are not earning but spending a lot of money. It is difficult, but at present I am earning enough to contribute to run this place. If he is passionate about coaching and young guys are benefitting out of it, I don’t mind sacrificing some money for it.”

“Our idea is to give talented youngsters who don’t have the facility but have the calibre to go the distance in cricket, a platform,” says Arvind. “Our focus is not on those who want to play club cricket. That way we would have 200 to 500 kids. We watch matches in the city and look out for those who want to make a career out of the game. Right now we have 20 to 25 kids training with us. We don’t do any kind of advertising.”

The academy is built on the simple principle of laying a strong foundation for the future generation; this at a time when the demand for producing clones of the world’s best cricketers continues to rise.

“We teach them the basics, and after that is up to them what they want to play. Parents don’t have much knowledge about cricket today. Everyone wants their son to be Sachin (Tendulkar), but for that you need talent,” stresses Arvind, an old hand. “We explain to them that your kid has only this much talent, and ask them to focus on academics [if we feel they can’t become professional cricketers]. In any field, you have to have the basic intelligence and then you can learn [and grow].”

In many ways, this project is an extension of what Arvind was doing while employed with Indian Railways. For more than 15 years, he used the Railways’ facility to groom youngsters, including his son. Not long after his retirement, the father-son duo acquired a small plot near their house for batting and bowling practice, but they soon realised they needed a match-standard ground to continue serious coaching.

The purchase of the plot for a princely amount around three years ago was just the start. Levelling the land, constructing a compound wall, making arrangements for water supply, laying five turf pitches and two cement tracks, setting up a small dressing room and gym, acquiring international standard bowling machines and rollers have all happened one after the other. They also bought a vehicle to ferry the students from the city daily.

“This has been possible because of my passion and interest. No amount of money can lead you to do this,” says Arvind, who didn’t allow even a heart bypass surgery to come in the way of his passion. “There are no fixed working hours here. Apart from coaching, there are so many other things to be taken care of with infrastructure being the toughest challenge.”

Cheteshwar admits that he invested only because of Arvind’s vision. “It was my father’s idea to help young cricketers without charging money,” he says. “We are not earning but spending a lot of money. It is difficult, but at present I am earning enough to contribute to run this place. If he is passionate about coaching and young guys are benefitting out of it, I don’t mind sacrificing some money for it.”

“Parents don’t have much knowledge about cricket today. Everyone wants their son to be Sachin (Tendulkar), but for that you need talent. We explain to them that your kid has only this much talent, and ask them to focus on academics.”

It is important to put things in perspective here. Had there been a fee for admission in the academy, there would still have been demand because of Cheteshwar’s reputation, and it would have taken care of some overheads. So, for the Pujaras to not leverage their status is a significant social contribution from their side.

The duo’s mutual respect – beyond that dictated by blood – is evident in the manner in which they converse with each other and it has helped them forge a strong partnership for this venture. “He never questions what I do. He understands that whatever money is spent has some thought and it benefits the kids,” says Arvind about his son. “Cheteshwar’s name helps us get a few [government] permissions. Sometimes people don’t believe that we are doing this for free, but when they understand, they are helpful.”

Cheteshwar, on his part, thinks his father has evolved as a coach. “What I used to do ten years ago, today’s kids obviously can’t do the same thing. Nowadays international cricket is more dominated by T20 and ODI format,” he points out. “Young kids have to learn the basics, but they can’t play classical cricket all the time. They have to learn to adapt to all formats at the junior level. My father has realised that the methods have changed and now it is important to find the right balance between all three formats.

“What I used to do ten years ago, today’s kids obviously can’t do the same thing. Nowadays international cricket is more dominated by T20 and ODI format. Young kids have to learn the basics, but they can’t play classical cricket all the time. They have to learn to adapt to all formats at the junior level.”

“While my father takes care of the technical part, I share my practical experience and tell them that it is fine to be nervous when you are playing, but you have to adapt to the situation,” he goes on. “We also have Arpit Vasavada and Kuldeep Sharma, who played for India Under-19, coaching here and their experience is also very helpful.”

The striking aspect of the facility is that even though the outfield doesn’t have grass, it looks pristine. They don’t have a full-time coach, the water problem persists even though residents of surrounding villages chip in during offseason, and there is a matter of pumping in around Rs 10-20 lakh for annual maintenance. But the intent of the owners shines through, and Arvind now wants to scale up.

“It’s expensive and we have spent a lot for this without any financial assistance from anyone. It is an investment,” explains Arvind. “We don’t have any complaints, what’s running will run, but our aim is to take the academy from Rajkot level to Saurashtra level to Gujarat level to India level, one step at a time. For that, we need corporate sponsorship. We have sowed the seed, now how far it goes is dependent on god and luck.”

The day before we met, three students from the academy got selected for the Under-16 district team for the first time, and Arvind was visibly happy about the progress. Time will tell if the academy can sustain itself to produce international cricketers, but the drive of the Pujara household is not slowing down anytime soon.

Also read: Pujara interview – “Every team needs a player to hold up the innings”