Among the many devils that he duelled with and tamed during the Indian cricket team’s recent foray down under, Cheteshwar Pujara will eventually be remembered for one solitary number: 1258.

Those magical figures have already become a symbol, if not etched in stone forever; maybe, they have acquired him near-legendary status too, for no Indian has survived (or triumphed over) that many deliveries against a charged-up, motivated Australian attack in the course of one series. Pujara, of course, did a lot more than just get on Australian nerves and wear them down during his steadfast vigils: he conquered time and impetuosity, two of the biggest enemies of modern-day batsmen, in his quest for salvation, if not supremacy or perfection.

It’s a pity that the score cards don’t reflect the number of hours he had spent in the middle, surrounded by cussing Aussies, both on and off the field; in all likelihood, he must have broken another record there too, accumulating 521 runs, three centuries and a series victory in Australia after 71 frustrating years.

Don’t, however, be fooled by the images that come to mind when he is portrayed as an emotionless run-machine; don’t condemn him into the pantheon of dour, classical purveyors of runs already, merely for being extra watchful and cautious. Stop for a second and take a closer look at one of his more obdurate, harmless shots: the forwarddefensive stroke against spin. Even in all the calmness around him, in the serenity that he musters, you can see the fire within. Yes, freeze that frame and dissect it a little more carefully, just like he does the situation in the face of adversity, before passing judgement.

Do you see the gait of a hunter or a survivor? An attacker or a defender? Look at the way he crouches when he is finally playing the ball: knees bent, taking his tall and powerful body as close to the ground as possible, head in alignment with the front foot and every part of his body primed for a surprise. Against pace, for the same stroke, he is just a little more upright, more elegant. Everything else remains the same. Both shots point to a defensive demeanour; but then, maybe, you missed those eyes. Narrowed down to a squint, burning and alert, sharp and unflinching, they alone betray the hunger within, the desire to be more than a sponge that can absorb anything for the team, the confidence to scoff at the measly ball. Pujara has the courage, the temperament, even the foolhardiness to rise above the wall. It doesn’t have to stop there, though. The numbers reveal their own story: his series average (84.83) was more than double that of even Kohli’s (40.28). Even more tellingly, he also scored at a faster rate (2.5 per over) than Kohli (2.47).

 

HE HAD SET FOR HIMSELF A NEAR IMPOSSIBLE TASK: TRY AND BREAK INTO THE INDIAN TEST LINEUP, WHICH BOASTED OF GAMBHIR, SEHWAG, DRAVID, TENDULKAR, GANGULY AND LAXMAN

 

Cheteshwar Pujara, all of 31 years old now, embarked on his monumental journey when he was barely eight. It is said that his father, a Ranji player himself, dressed him up in whites every day, afternoon and evening, tied tiny home-made pads around his legs and rolled the ball for him, rather than bouncing it the way it was supposed to be, in a little park in Rajkot. At times, perhaps when India is playing ODIs or if the IPL is on, Pujara may frown at his father’s ways just a little bit. But then, you can’t really fault the old man: after all, Arvind Pujara was born roughly around the same time as Sunil Gavaskar; he also played his cricket when the Little Master was shining a beacon for Mumbai’s style of batsmanship, overcoming the fiercest set of pace bowlers the game had ever seen. The father had to inculcate in the son the noble habit of playing straight.

Cheteshwar was born in 1988, about a year before Sachin Tendulkar, the next Little Master, made his debut; by the time he made the grade and was measuring runs in centuries and doubles, Sachin had towered over every other batsman India had produced, and indeed was changing the paradigms of batting. For the first time, India were attacking and not defending, or looking for survival; for the first time, they were playing to win, to defeat, and not to save matches. Suddenly, the team had the likes of Sehwag and Laxman, Ganguly and Dravid, each capable of raising visions of victory in their own inimitable ways.

 

By the time Pujara made his first-class debut in 2005, as a 17- year old, the game had begun its next transformative journey; two years down the line, a New India was born, with MS Dhoni carrying a young team to an unexpected triumph in the T20 World Cup. And then, the IPL was launched, setting the stage for India to shed its timid, shy image and to roar. As the world came to play in our backyard, as the game founds its home in India, the next generation of batsmen was already taking shape: the Virats and Rohits, the Rainas and Dhawans, the Rayudus and Rahanes, all of whom could bat at a much, much higher gear than any other Indian bunch, right from the outset. Pujara, whose primary instinct was to play straight, could do nothing but watch as he was left behind in the race. But then, he had set for himself a near-impossible task: try and break into the Indian Test lineup, which boasted of Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman.

There was absolutely no hope, no opening. He had no option but to take his ire out on the door that he may have deemed unfair: modest, polite knocks were not going to open it for him; he had to mow it down himself, with a road-roller, because nothing less would do. Pujara has always been a relentless runscorer, right since he entered the arena as a major talent, albeit in the old-school mould. He came into prominence by smashing a triple hundred at the Under-14 level; his Ranji Trophy campaign for Saurashtra got underway in 2005, just after he made an impression as an Under-19 India Test player. He amassed 211 runs to guide India to a big victory, earning himself a ticket to the Under-19 World Cup the next year. He promptly grabbed the Man of the Tournament mantle, scoring 349 runs from six innings, including three 50s and a century. He was out for a duck in the final, and India lost the title to Pakistan.

 

 

Back home, he continued to take big strides: he came to be known as the Rajkot Bully, as he pounded every attack that ventured into his territory. By the winter of 2010, eventually, the big call came: he was inducted into the side against the touring Aussies. Gambhir, Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman were still the lynchpins around whom the batting revolved. Pujara finally got his opportunity in the second Test in Bengaluru, when Gambhir and Laxman were ruled out with injuries. It proved to be an uneventful start, with only 4 runs accruing to him in the first innings at No. 5. In the second innings though, elevated ahead of Dravid to the No. 3 position as India chased a tricky target of 207 runs on the last day, he displayed his attacking acumen, scoring 72 runs off 89 deliveries to set up the victory.

He missed the next three Tests against New Zealand at home, but could not be prevented from boarding the flight to South Africa. He featured in two Tests, and batting from the depths of No. 6, couldn’t play his normal wearing down role that he usually played at the top of the order. He, however, showed that he would not be cowed down by pace or bounce.

A knee injury during the 2011 IPL kept Pujara out of the epochal tours of England and Australia, in which India were whitewashed, raising the clamour for the heads of the elders in the team. By the end of the twin demolition, Virat Kohli, after a string of not so edifying scores, was slowly coming into his own. Pujara returned to the Indian side in the summer of 2012, turning it into a true second coming. He has amassed 5,426 runs since then, studding them with 18 centuries at an impressive average of 51.18. He is not too far behind the voracious Virat Kohli in Tests, though the captain soars above him and the rest with his fluency in all three formats.

Nevertheless, he can take solace in winning the Man of the Series award ahead of Kohli; he can gloat that he has earned the respect of the entire cricketing world, playing the game in a manner that his peers have all but forgotten. He can take pride in the fact that he has made the boys around him realise that to become a real man, they need to dazzle by not dazzling, that the art of leaving is much more divine and pure than the act of hitting.

That is probably one thing that even Rahul Dravid (the anchor that he is forever compared to) will grant. Dravid has played innumerable classy knocks against the best attacks, under demanding conditions, adopting the classical Test match approach: defend and blunt. He had the technique and the temperament to weather the storm, to let the typhoon pass. He also had the comfort of knowing that Sachin Tendulkar was right behind him at every step; he could expect Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman too to pick up the mantle in some difficult times; and then, there was Virender Sehwag before all of them, someone who could blow the storm to smithereens, or even reduce the typhoon to nothingness.

Pujara has no such insurance; he and Virat Kohli fight different battles while the flash brigade mostly make guest appearances, or are content with cameo performances. Pujara has to play a double role – wear down the attack and then take them to the cleaners. It is a slow and steady process, making him that much more vulnerable. A single mistake or a lapse in judgement can prove fatal at any point; a series of poor scores, especially after long not-so-productive stints at the crease, can paint him as a modern misfit at any time, costing him his place in the side (as was the case during the tour of England, just a few months ago). But the dice have been loaded against him right from the beginning.

For the moment, things are going better than expected. Within a week of coming back from Australia, he was assisting Saurashtra in the quest to win their first Ranji Trophy in 85 years. He scored a masterly 67 not out in the second innings against Uttar Pradesh, to help the team reach the semi-finals against Karnataka, where he again played a crucial role in the victory, scoring an unbeaten 131 – his 49th first-class century. He has helped Saurashtra reach the Ranji finals three times now in the last seven years, and with his current form, the hope is that they will finally emerge victorious this year.

Pujara will continue to play the role he has assigned for himself, freeing the spirit within only when he feels the risk has been contained, or if he sees a compelling need to do so. At that point again, you might want to check his footwork: forward or back, it is precise and decisive; he cuts the ball or pulls it with so much vigour that you can sense the rage inside him. His batting style has meant that he hasn’t played an ODI in five years, and no team has bid for him in the IPL auctions since 2014. But a day will come, perhaps not too far in the future, when he will unshackle himself and step out of the cage that encloses him; he knows that he has the strokes and the smartness to play them, and when he is ready to deploy them, the glamorous batsmen will likely cede ground to him. Until then, Cheteshwar Pujara will find redemption in the number of deliveries that he can counter, in the amount of time that he can spend at the crease, like a cricketing ascetic.

PUJARA’S STATS

Pujara faced 1258 BALLS, the most by an Indian cricketer in a Test series in Australia

He has an average of 51.19 in TEST MATCHES

He’s played over 110 TEST INNINGS He hit over 600 FOURS and has scored 18 TEST CENTURIES

He’s been a part of 68 TEST MATCHES as of even date

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