The boys are stacking up the milestones. Earlier this week, R Ashwin played his 50th Test match, at the Galle International Stadium. Next week at the SSC ground in Colombo will be Cheteshwar Pujara’s 50th Test appearance, an emotional moment made especially sweet considering that it was at that venue that the Saurashtra batsman emphatically stormed back into the reckoning.
Dropped for the Sydney Test against Australia in January 2015, and then overlooked for the one-off Test against Bangladesh in June and then the first two Tests in Sri Lanka that August, Pujara was only picked in the XI because India were an opener short. In his first innings at the top of the tree in Test cricket, he made an unconquered 145, the only Indian to carry his bat in a Test innings after Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag. India won the decisive game and the series – their first win in the Emerald Isle since 1993 – and the resurrection of Pujara, the Test batsman, was well and truly complete.
Pujara’s initiation into Test cricket was spectacular. Propelled to No. 3 on debut during a tricky run chase against Australia in Bangalore in October 2010, he filled the massive shoes of Rahul Dravid quite superbly. His stroke-filled 72 rocked the Aussies as India completed a commanding victory; Pujara slipped back into the middle order subsequently, but once Dravid bid adieu in early 2012, Pujara was back at No. 3 as the original Wall’s rightful heir apparent, offering the solidity and the calmness around which first Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and now Virat Kohli, build their batting plans.
“I first met Rahul bhai in 2007 when India was playing in Rajkot. I had a chat with him, he was the Indian captain at that time. After that, I met him at the NCA on a couple of occasions and in 2010, I made my debut and shared a dressing-room with him. I have had many interactions with him and he is someone who has supported me a lot. When it comes to technique and experience, he is one of the best persons around. As a mentor, it is not just about technique. What he tells me is that there are different aspects of this game which you need to understand. With his experience and with his guidance, I have learnt a lot.”
The tall right-hand batsman now averages 52.18 in 49 Tests, has 12 centuries and scores at an acceptable 48.17 per hundred balls faced, but his strike-rate and so-called passivity were held against him when he was ushered out of the XI during the first Kohli-Ravi Shastri management stint. When Anil Kumble took over as head coach, he restored Pujara’s confidence as well as his place in the playing XI, and the batsman responded to the faith shown in him by making an astonishing 1316 runs in 13 home Tests last season.
Pujara must have wondered what lay ahead as far back as in 2010-11, on his first overseas tour. In the unfamiliar terrain of South Africa against a quality attack headlined by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel – the toughest bowlers he has faced, Pujara admits – he managed scores of only 19, 10 and 2 in his three hits. The last of those innings lasted a mere 14 deliveries when Steyn produced a peach of an away swinger from leg-stump that opened Pujara up like a can of beans, and pinged him plumb in front.
“I told myself that I have to work hard on my game, especially if I want to play at the international level against world-class bowlers in different conditions,” Pujara reminisced on a blustery Sunday (July 30) evening, a wistful smile playing on his lips. “After that, I really worked hard on my game, starting in 2011, and I got the results in 2012 and 2013. I was looking at players like Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Sachin (Tendulkar) paaji, all of them got runs on that tour in some innings or the other. I was just trying to notice the things that they were trying to do; I had a chat with them and I did try implementing a few things in the nets, which did help me later on.”
Pujara has been an able and willing learner, always on the lookout for ways to get better. He came into the dressing room as a goggle-eyed 22-year-old, somewhat in awe of his heroes Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly – ‘My favourite batsmen, I grew up watching them’ – but determined to pick whatever he could by watching them and speaking to them. “The one thing was that they always worked hard on their game,” he said, somewhat disbelievingly.” I mean, many of them did score more than 10,000 runs when I was part of the team. But the way they were still working hard on the game, they were always trying to improve their game. They were all grounded and they were trying to support young players. Whenever I wanted some guidance from them, they were always trying to help me; and not just me, even the other players. The work ethic and their determination and the pride of representing the country, that was always there. It’s very difficult to describe things in a few words what I have learnt from them, they were always trying to support me.”
The biggest cricketing influence on Pujara, apart from dad Arvind, has been Dravid. People noticed a similarity in styles and temperament between the two of them long before the younger man broke into the Test team, and Dravid has always been Pujara’s corner with a quiet word here, an encouraging and reassuring pat there. “I first met Rahul bhai in 2007 when India was playing in Rajkot. I had a chat with him, he was the Indian captain at that time. After that, I met him at the NCA on a couple of occasions and in 2010, I made my debut and shared a dressing-room with him. I have had many interactions with him and he is someone who has supported me a lot when it comes to cricket. When it comes to technique and experience, he is one of the best persons around. As a mentor, it is not just about technique. What he tells me is that there are different aspects of this game which you need to understand. With his experience and with his guidance, I have learnt a lot.”
The difficult period marked by uncertainty and perhaps a little bit of trepidation in the immediacy of the axe from the Test team in early 2015 left Pujara somewhat confused, but the Kumble vote of confidence during and after the tour of the Caribbean last year has seen Pujara soar like never before. In the home season gone by, he made three centuries and a double-hundred in the 13 Tests, and kicked off this series in Sri Lanka with 153 in the Galle victory. If there is one thing that he has worked on in recent times, it has been his intent, he revealed.
Also read: Pujara far more than Dravid Version 2.0
“The one thing that I have changed is my intent,” he offered. “I would also like to add a few more shots to my batting going ahead. I have already started working on it. Playing different formats of the game is something which I would like to do. The way I am batting now, I am very confident that I can add a few more shots in my game which will help me play different formats of this game.
“There was a time when I was getting out in the 50s and 60s. Overall, I was batting well. Even in the West Indies, I got a fifty and in one of the innings I was run out for around 40. That was the phase where I was getting a good start and I wasn’t able to convert my good start into a big one. I thought about it, I worked hard on my game, I just did what I knew. There was nothing wrong with my technique because after that, I spoke to Rahul bhai, who told me that I should continue the way I’ve been playing. I just trusted my game, worked hard on it and I was just one (big) innings away.”
That one big innings didn’t take long in coming, and was soon followed by another big one. And yet another one. Pujara has since got on the bike and sped away. Perhaps his way of saying: “Strike-rate? Take that.”