So far so good, but no room for complacency

Pujara with the Man of the Match award after the first Test against England.-PIC. S. SUBRAMANIUM

Cheteshwar Pujara has to cope with the pressure of expectations as well as the scourge of comparison. By K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

Ahmedabad’s Sardar Patel Stadium, popularly referred to as the Motera, is named after an iconic leader who united squabbling mini kingdoms into the vast expanse of India in the immediate aftermath of August 15, 1947. And much like the man, who provided brick and mortar to the Indian Republic’s early days, the cricketing venue too has witnessed batting acts that promised assurance and longevity.

On this turf in Gujarat’s key city, Sunil Gavaskar notched his 10,000th Test run in a match against Pakistan in 1987. He was the first cricketer to scale that peak in the game’s longest version. History’s tread just got firmer last week as Cheteshwar Pujara’s unbeaten 206 was the highlight of India’s victory over England in the first Test of the four-match series.

If Gavaskar’s feat capped a stupendous career that coped with snarling speedsters and spinners spitting venom on treacherous pitches, Pujara’s effort offers hope to a team that is slowly regrouping after the retirements of Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman. Pujara’s story, however, is just evolving though he finds himself in an unenviable position.

He has to cope with the pressure of expectations as well as the scourge of comparison. His latest 513-minute vigil at the crease that kept at bay the challenges of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan, has meant that the nickname that Dravid loathed — ‘The Wall’ — is now being peddled along with Pujara.

References like ‘The next wall?’ has already done the media rounds. It is no mean feat to step into the number three slot vacated by Dravid, but instead of being given the space to find his own roots, Pujara finds himself in the shadow of the great batsman. The Dravid metaphor that shadows Pujara has been built on some common traits. The patience to grind out attacks, the ability to unobtrusively pocket the runs, the serene air at the batting crease, the measured words and the marked preference to stay low-profile are all facets that bind Dravid and Pujara together but to anoint the 24-year-old from Rajkot as the Bangalorean’s successor would be a premature move.

Yes, he scored a winning 72 on Test debut against Australia in Bangalore in 2010 and there is no denying the control he exhibited during his recent two centuries, starting with the 159 against New Zealand and the double hundred against England but Pujara is just six Tests old while Dravid’s is a tale of 164 Tests and 13,288 runs. Add to it 344 ODIs that yielded 10,889 runs and you get a huge benchmark that ideally should inspire a young batsman instead of being the pressure point that tests his nerves.

Soft-spoken to the point of extreme reticence, Pujara has seen the vicissitudes of life. He lost his mother to cancer and saw his father and guide Arvind Pujara recover from a cardiac arrest. And along with that the talented youngster also had to cope with a knee injury that sidelined him for close to a year. Life’s low points have obviously steeled his will and that will surely lend perspective when he has to deal with the small matter of a red ball hurtling towards him from across 22 yards.

Pujara, however, has to pass the essential rite of passage that defines a quality batsman — runs overseas. In the two Tests he played in South Africa, Pujara scored 19, 10 and 2 with the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe having his measure. For the next six months, India will play all its matches at home and Pujara’s anointment as Dravid’s heir can wait till he goes abroad and returns with big scores.

Indian cricket has too many cautionary tales and the stories range across a broad spectrum. In 1989, during the same series Sachin Tendulkar made his debut and despite a bloodied nose, impressed the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, his senior Mumbaikar Sanjay Manjrekar drew in profuse applause. Akram and Younis even proclaimed him as the best batsman in the world. It was a huge label to carry when you consider the blue-chip men who were still around then: Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Allan Border, David Gower, Javed Miandad, Dilip Vengsarkar and Martin Crowe.

Sadly, Manjrekar became a victim of his obsession with technical exactitude and the runs dried up. At the other end, Vinod Kambli started with a bang before fame’s dark alleys consumed him. A couple of years ago, even Virat Kohli seemed distracted before better sense prevailed and he is now truly the most valuable batsman in the Indian team’s ranks. Most importantly, he gained approval and accolades with his 75 and 116 against Australia in Perth and Adelaide respectively in January this year.

It is a lesson for Pujara, who surely has made an impact, at least at home, and has the hunger.

“I never like to get out. There’s always a price on my wicket. Even after scoring a double-hundred I never wanted to give away my wicket. That’s the reason why I am able to score big runs,” he said with the surety of a man, who has already registered nine 150-plus scores in first-class cricket.

“He is remarkably composed and extremely quiet. He may not make people laugh but he has no issues in joining in a good laugh inside the dressing room,” said an associate of Pujara in the Indian Premier League team, Royal Challengers Bangalore.

The sealed lips are slowly on the wane at least in his Twitter account but for now it is still early days for Pujara while the bowlers club is searching for chinks in his armour.

Indian cricket’s latest hope is aware of the scrutiny and he knows that the pull shot has undone him a few times. That introspective bent will keep Pujara grounded while headlines about the Dravid-effect continue to unfortunately shadow his every step.