He isn’t the quickest India batsman between the wickets. He isn’t the most athletic fielder, either.
But put a bat in his hand, and he can bat longer, possibly score higher than any of his more illustrious team-mates. If Virat Kohli is the all-encompassing superstar of this side, and Ravi Ashwin the central bowler who makes it all tick, it is in Cheteshwar Pujara that you find the quintessential Test batsman.
“Never”, he replied with a smile, when asked if he ever gets bored of scoring runs. “I am someone who always loves batting. The kind of bowlers I am facing hardly matters to me, or the kind of opposition for that matter. When you are playing at international level and representing your country, you want to win each match. I never get bored of this game.”
Hailing from small-town Rajkot, you can always sense the roots of this love. Like most youngsters in this country, he grew up watching Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Every kid in India wants to hold a bat in hand, wants to score runs, hit sixes and raise arms on reaching a hundred. Very few want to bowl.
While millions of such aspiring kids in the dustbowls across the Indian sub-continent harbour this dream, very few get to work towards it. And even fewer actually break through, with enough sweat, blood and persistence. Pujara is that one in a million kid, now poised to play his 50th Test for India at Colombo.
“When I started playing cricket, I always wanted to be a Test cricketer. Having the opportunity to represent my country for the 50th Test will be a proud moment. I take one match at a time so I shouldn’t be too emotional about it. The way things have shaped up so far, it has been a good career but one with ups and downs,” said Pujara.
That he gets to cross this milestone at the Sinhalese Sports Club is poetic. This was where he made a stunning comeback to the Indian team after eight months on the bench. The management experimented with Rohit Sharma at No3 as Pujara was sidelined after poor returns in New Zealand (60 runs in two Tests), England (222 runs in five Tests) and Australia (221 runs in three Tests).
The issue was ‘strike-rate’, simplified in the explanation of enforcing proceedings and stamping your authority on the opposition.
It wasn’t a wrong move on the part of Kohli and then team director (now head coach) Ravi Shastri. They were searching for a Ricky Ponting, someone who could intimidate the opposition, but Rohit failed to impress. They, then, reverted to Pujara, a workman just like Dravid; someone who takes the bowlers apart slowly.
But first, Pujara had to impress. It might sound like an unnecessary audition, yet that is precisely what that SSC Test was. Even when picked,he was a makeshift opener, for the team management still baulked at the chance to play him at No3.
Pujara accepted the challenge, and scored a resolute 145 not out on a green-top wicket, paving the way for a first Indian Test series win on Sri Lankan soil in 22 years. There has been no looking back since.
“When I got that hundred here in 2015, everything changed. There was a phase afterwards when I was getting starts but not converting them (against South Africa at home in 2015 and against West Indies in 2016), yet I knew I was batting well. I was scoring runs in domestic cricket and it gave me confidence that there is nothing wrong in my technique,” said Pujara.
In that light, the 2016/17 home season was a springboard. In 13 Tests against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, Pujara scored 1316 runs at 62.66, inclusive of four hundreds and eight half-centuries.
Simply put, he batted and batted, then batted some more. It is a mirror image to what he was able to accomplish in the 2012/13 home season, albeit with a difference. The poor run overseas has hardened him as a cricketer, overall.
It could be seen most in the manner he accumulated runs in the first Test at Galle. While Shikhar Dhawan thrashed Sri Lanka from one end, Pujara quietly brought up his 12th Test hundred.
“You always want to perform better on challenging tracks, like the SSC one in 2015. But I always enjoy scoring. Whenever there is an opportunity to score a Test hundred, you might as well take it and score as many runs as possible,” he said, after scoring 153 on day two in Galle, re-affirming his penchant for runs, if at all there was any doubt.