In cricket, as in life, attainment of certain landmarks that indicate survival warrants celebration. Indian households celebrate reaching the age of 60 and 84 by an individual, on account of various reasons. The primary objective behind this is to thank the Almighty for providing a long and productive existence till then, while also seeking his continued blessings for the years ahead. In cricket, making one’s bow at the first-class level marks the first step in the life of a player who intends to make this sport his profession. A Test debut, which is the dream of all aspiring cricketers, marks reaching the highest level. Surviving in this league and excelling there needs constant honing of one’s skillsets to near perfection while also maintaining peaks levels of physical fitness.
Playing 100 Test matches calls for special celebration as it announces that the cricketer has climbed the highest peak that only a select few have seen, let alone attain. The increased frequency with which matches are played in recent years might give the impression that reaching this landmark is easier during present times. This is not true as the demands that the present day cricketers face, from playing all round the year to adjusting to the requirements of the three versions of the game, make a huge demand on the mind and body of the individual. Challenges involved have not come down over the years, only their nature has changed without bringing down the degree of difficulties involved.
Cheteshwar Pujara is the latest in the list of 74 cricketers across the world to join the exclusive club of those who have played 100 Tests. He also became the 13th from India to achieve this distinction. Pujara will certainly feel a blush of pride when he looks at the names of those who reached there before him. Colin Cowdrey of England was the first cricketer to play in 100 Tests, a distinction he achieved in 1968. When Sunil Gavaskar became the first player from Asia to attain this landmark in October 1984, a special function was organised during the Test match at Lahore wherein Gen. Zia Ul Haq, then military ruler of Pakistan honoured him. This alone would serve to indicate the significance of achieving this landmark.
In many ways, Pujara is an anachronism in contemporary cricket. In an age where focus of even the latest entrant to the game is on gaining riches and fame by playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL), Pujara has not taken active part in this championship since 2014. While batsmen have, as a rule, tended to modify their technique to suit the demands of the limited overs version of the game, he had steadfastly clung to the old fashioned virtues in the manner of a monogamist, which make him look like a throwback to the pre 1990s era. He has shunned the glitz and glamour of white-ball cricket and stuck to the grind of the conventional format, often taking painful knocks on his body as he battled to bring respect to India’s totals, especially in venues abroad.
In his masterly book titled “The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India”, James Astill, former South Asia Bureau chief of “The Economist” magazine and an ardent cricket aficionado, has written in detail about Pujara’s formative years in the game. He learnt cricket under the watchful eyes of his father Arvind, a retired clerk in Indian Railways, who was good enough to play first-class cricket for Saurashtra. Arvind trained his son in the basics of batting and, more importantly, brought him up as a good human being, traits that have stood Cheteshwar in good stead through his career. It was not easy going for the family as Arvind’s salary was seldom sufficient to make ends meet. But they soldiered on and never gave up on the game. Cheteshwar’s mother Reena, who succumbed to cancer couple of months before his debut in Ranji trophy, was a pillar of strength and encouraged the father and son in pursuing their passion.
Like most other cricketers of his generation, Pujara came through the ranks of junior and first-class cricket, before he came into the national reckoning. He made his first-class debut for his home side of Saurashtra in 2005 and was the player of the tournament in the ICC Under-19 World Cup of 2006, where he was the leading run-getter. During the next four years he made mountains of runs in the domestic circuit and forced his way to the national squad. Breaking into the playing eleven was not easy during those years given the surfeit of riches that India possessed in the batting department on account of the presence of the “Fab Four”- Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V V S Laxman. He finally got his chance when Laxman was injured and could not play in the second Test of the home series against Australia at Bangalore in 2010.
Baptism by fire
Pujara’s debut did not turn out to be a bed of roses. Slotted to bat at No.5 in the order in the first innings, he had to wait more than six hours with his pads on, as Murali Vijay and Tendulkar put on 308 runs for the third wicket. His first outing to the middle lasted only three balls as he was trapped plumb in front of the wicket by a “shooter” from Mitchell Johnson, after hitting a solitary boundary. However, skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni gave him a lifeline by promoting him in the batting order to the crucial No. 3 position when India chased a target of 207 in the second innings. Pujara seized this chance gratefully and scored a quick 72 off 89 balls to record his first half-century in Test cricket.
It was only after the departure of Dravid and Laxman that Pujara could cement his place in the national side. He did this with a string of tall scores that saw him reach 1,000 runs in Test cricket in his 11th game, equalling the achievement of Gavaskar. He has not looked back since though patches of bad form had seen him lose his place in the playing eleven on few occasions. He also found it difficult to cope with the demands made for dominating the opposing attacks and scoring runs briskly when Virat Kohl was leading the side. But he found his way back to the side as it was soon realised that there was no batsman better equipped than him to tackle bowlers in conditions that favoured bowlers. His performances in 2018 during the tours of England, where he came good after being dropped for the first Test, and Australia, when he struck three centuries to emerge as the highest run-getter from either side, showed how critical his contributions were in determining the fortunes of the side on foreign pitches.
The utility of Pujara’s style of batting and his approach to the game was evident during India’s next tour of Australia in 2020-21. Though he scored only 271 runs in the four-match series, he held the middle order together after the drubbing that the team received in the first Test. In the last Test where India shocked the Aussies to clinch the series, Pujara stood firm, bravely taking blows on his body even as he guided two youngsters - Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant- through the two critical partnerships that placed India firmly on the road to victory.
Doughty is the word that readily comes to mind when describing Pujara and his batting. He is the epitome of courage and determination, never giving up without a fight. His batting is not aesthetically attractive nor is his technique taken straight out of the coaching manual. But his steely resolve, coupled with remarkable grit and infinite patience, helped him to tackle the best of bowlers successfully. He is one of the few Indian batsmen who have scored prolifically while playing abroad. Out of the total 7,052 runs made by him in 100 Tests, 3,315 have come on overseas wickets. Similarly nine out of his 19 Test hundreds have been scored while battling the opposition outside the country. Though his average score per innings and strike rate are higher while batting in India, it can be said without any hesitation that he was one of the pillars on which Indian batting rested during the second decade of this century while taking on hostile attacks in difficult conditions.
The brief ceremony to congratulate Pujara on this achievement held at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi was an elegant and poignant one. It was a memorable day in the life of this resolute warrior who has held high the flag of Indian batting across the world. The highlight of the event was the presence of Arvind, who had chosen to remain behind the curtain for most part of his son’s career.
Let us doff our hat and salute Pujara for his contributions to Indian cricket.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)