The strange life of India's Test No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara

Who is Cheteshwar Pujara in reality? The batsman who grinds for hours at the crease or the one who deliberately subdues the aggressive side for the love of Test cricket?

Cheteshwar Pujara scored the slowest fifty of his career, off 176 balls, in the Sydney Test.   -  AP

It is day five of the third Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The weather at the Sydney Cricket Ground is nice and bright. It is two days since Cheteshwar Pujara scored his slowest-ever half-century – off 174 balls – and his strike rate of 28.41 drew criticism from commentators, pundits and fans alike. Pujara is at the crease again.

The feeling is that Indian cricket never really accepts Pujara for who he is and instead expects him to be something more than just a batsman who scores truckloads of runs. If he were any other cricketer, the narrative might have been that of a guy who battled incessant sledging and menacing bowling to score a hundred, and celebrated with over-the-top leaping as fans screamed their lungs out.

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Yet, in the imagination of a cricket-crazy nation, Pujara jostles to fit in with the definition of a hero.

With India 309 runs adrift of the target in Sydney, Pujara has to choose between stonewalling and batting with intent against an attack that has targeted his off-stump line with the nagging persistence of a kid in a candy store.

***

It’s a warm March morning in 2019 and Pujara seems at ease, reclining in a comfortable chair in his home in Rajkot. A few months before, he had orchestrated India’s maiden Test series win in Australia with knocks characterised by abstinence and self-denial. His historic performance Down Under, where he scored 521 runs off 1,258 deliveries, reminded him to be what he is instead of what he is not. “That will help you excel,” he says.

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All the while, Arvind Pujara, Cheteshwar’s father and first coach, is seated next to him. As the son responds to a question about whether the strike-rate debate affects him, the father interjects. “Cheteshwar has earned accolades as a batsman; now I want him to play for his fans,” Arvind says with quiet pride in his voice. “There aren’t many people in this world who can give joy to millions just by brandishing the willow. If you are bestowed with such gifts, then you might as well use it to give back to the people who root for you every time you walk out to bat.”

Arvind pats his son on the back and they glance at each other. There is a lingering pause, a slightly awkward one. Cheteshwar has a stoic look on his face. He smiles and continues: “Nothing is permanent in cricket. Opinions change with each passing performance.”

***

Over at the Sydney Cricket Ground, India has lost skipper Ajinkya Rahane early on the final day. Rishabh Pant has been promoted to No. 5 to counterattack, and the southpaw does not disappoint with a scintillating knock of 97. Along the way, Pujara raises his second fifty of the game – off 170 balls this time.

Watching Pujara and Pant bat together is fascinating: the former is criticised for being too defensive and the latter draws flak for playing one attacking shot too many. But India’s hopes hinge on this partnership. Pant eventually falls three short of a hundred, having struck 12 fours and three sixes during his 118-ball knock. At the other end, Pujara is batting on 58 off 181, with India still 157 runs short of the target with six wickets in hand.

Does Pujara dig in and get through tea, or does he start playing more shots?

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Pujara scores 19 runs off the next 24 balls he faces, hitting four fours, including three in one over of Pat Cummins, a bowler who had removed him four times in the series for just 19 runs off 129 deliveries! Intent? Tick.

“If I am putting my wicket at risk and the team is not going to benefit from it, then it is not worth it,” he had said with a firm voice in Rajkot two years prior. Back in the present day, he is getting a move on in Sydney.

Four overs later, Pujara looks to defend a length delivery from Josh Hazlewood on middle stump, but the ball flies off the outside edge past Steve Smith at second slip for four. Twelve balls later, Hazlewood cleans Pujara up.

Pujara departs for 77 off 205 balls with India needing 135 to win. Is that the game? Did he throw away his wicket? Did he suffer a lapse in concentration? Was it an unplayable ball? The dismissal prompts debate on social media. Same old, same old.

Meanwhile, India goes on to draw the Test match riding on Ravichandran Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari’s miraculous sixth-wicket partnership. “If I was fit, if I was not injured, and Puji [Cheteshwar Pujara] was there for some more time, we would have had a different result maybe,” Vihari would say after the game.

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Maybe they would have. Maybe they wouldn’t. But at Sydney, any comment on or criticism of Pujara’s intent was in the end drowned out by the loudest chorus of praise for India’s longest fourth innings in 40 years, which kept the team alive in the Border-Gavaskar series.

The fans celebrated the draw like a win. There were smiles and congratulations all around. Seven thousand kilometres away in Rajkot, a lovely smile may have lit up Arvind Pujara’s face. After all, his son’s innings had brought joy to the fans.

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