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.
Australian sport has long had a history of cannibalising itself, from World Series Cricket to Super League to Nick Kyrgios, but the current dramas ripping apart rugby union and cricket in the country take the art of self-destruction to a whole new low.
The issue in cricket is well-known, a pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the player’s union, Australian Cricketer’s Association, over a new MOU has seen the sport come to a grinding halt with the upcoming Australia A tour to South Africa set to be cancelled.
For now the upcoming Bangladesh tour, one-day series against India and, most importantly, Ashes tour are set to go ahead but there is a lot of bodies to float under the bridge first.
The split in rugby union has got so bad former Wallaby Jeremy Paul has labelled Australian Rugby Uion CEO Bill Pulver a “cockroach.”
“I look at Bill Pulver as the cockroach — he’s survived a nuclear war, like seriously,” Paul said.
The former hooker’s ire is due to the fact one of Australia’s five Super Rugby franchises is set to be axed at the end of this season, which is just over a week away.
There can be no question that the ARU could have handled the situation better but they were placed in an impossible situation by SANZAAR, the tournament’s governing body, who made the decision to cut the number of teams from 18 teams to 15.
South Africa, who have lost two teams already, had their exit strategy in place, with the axed clubs now set to join the PRO12 in Europe. There has been barely a murmur of dissent about this in South Africa with the players and fans of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings excited to test themselves against the best from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy next season and the move opening new revenue streams for the sport in the republic.
It also means there will be summer rugby in South Africa, giving the sport an audience year around.
In Australia there is no easy, or even hard, alternative playground and either the Western Force or Melbourne Rebels will cease to be on July 15.
For rugby in Australia, it is impossible to overstate the damage this does to the code. In personal terms it means that as many as one hundred players, coaches, administration and support staff will be out of work while in commercial terms the sport will no longer have a foothold in one of Australia’s major cities.
Not even to begin to talk about the millions and millions of dollars lost in investment setting up the two teams.
Union’s major competitors – rugby league, Australian rules and football – are laughing all the way to the bank, with higher ratings, greater playing numbers and more sponsorship revenues.
Australians love a winner and nothing stinks more than rugby union. The Wallabies are on the nose in terms of results and the Super Rugby teams, almost in sympathy for their soon to be departed brethren, have had their worse season in history.
So what is the answer?
In terms of cricket it’s relatively simple – CA and ACA simply need to get into a room, the same room, leave their egos at the door and nut out a solution. The ego-leaving might be hard for some, like CA CEO James Sutherland (below), but a way out is in their hands.
For rugby it’s a tougher question as the decision to axe a team is (supposedly) out of their hands. Apart from SANZAAR doing an about face and giving the Aussie teams a stay of execution the only palatable solution is for the Brumbies and Rebels to merge and play half their games in Canberra and the other half in Melbourne.
This solution actually works, preserving Rugby’s presence in Australia’s No1 sporting marketplace and also giving the Melbourne sporting public what they most crave – a winning team.
Perhaps this is what the ARU has been thinking all along – for the sake of rugby in Australia, let’s hope so.
Owning the No1 pick in the draft comes with a certain amount of pressure; namely that you’re expected to recruit a franchise-altering superstar.
But for every LeBron James or Tim Duncan, there’s a Kwame Brown or Anthony Bennett.
Having earned the right to pick first on June 22, however, the Boston Celtics are in a position where they almost can’t go wrong.
Firstly, consensus opinion deems this the strongest draft class since 2003, when James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade made up four of the first five picks. The fifth was the spectacular bust by the Detroit Pistons of choosing Darko Milicic at No2, ahead of some modern day greats.
But given they can set the agenda, how the 2017 draft pans out with Boston will be fascinating as they choose from a guard-heavy class with a roster already possessing three excellent players in that position in Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, so the need to find ‘a superstar’ isn’t as great. Unlike the team picking at No2, the LA Lakers, and it’s very clear who they want: Lonzo Ball.
The 19-year-old is a California native and UCLA alumni who has made his feelings clear that if it comes to the crunch, Los Angeles is where he wants to play.
Father LaVar has, predictability, gone further, declaring: “That’s all we’re working out for is the Lakers. Just the Lakers. There’s nobody else that we need to work out for.”
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have carefully honed a genuine collective at TD Garden. Thomas is ‘the star’ but that’s largely been through accident, rather than design. They are a team in the purest sense, hence why role players like Kelly Olynyk are able to make series-defining contributions.
A player like Ball, as wonderful as a talent as he is, bring potential headaches for an organisation with all that surrounds him: namely, LaVar who never mind already saying his son only really wants to play in LA, will make his feelings known very publicly if his boy isn’t earning superstar minutes straight away.
Consequently, one of three scenarios is likely to play out:
– Boston pass on Ball, and take either forwards Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson; the type of players they definitely need. Or they go for the ‘best prospect’ in Markelle Fultz as back-up to Thomas, allowing him to learn from IT and provide insurance should his expected max contract prove too much of a financial hit.
– Or, they take Ball, recognising he’s a generational talent and a long-term franchise cornerstone, all the time bracing themselves for Lavar.
– Or, they decide to play the Lakers by leaning towards Ball but prompting Magic Johnson to get on the phone and offer to trade up in the draft.
The Lakers clearly really, really want Ball and the feeling is mutual. It’s a situation that is likely to blind Johnson, by no means experienced at the negotiating table in the NBA, into offering a significant amount just to get the deal over the line.
D’Angelo Russell will almost certainly be prepped, as Ball’s best attributes clash with the 2015 No2 selection, while there could be more picks and maybe even a Julius Randle or Jordan Clarkson.
Russell doesn’t exactly add that much to Boston either, but who’s to say a trade with Chicago – in dire need of a franchise point guard – couldn’t be reached for All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler?
If Ainge is willing to work this situation he could end up with, in theory: whoever they really want in the draft, one of the Lakers’ young talents, picks plus Butler through a trade for Russell.
The Lakers, meanwhile, get Ball at No1 and everyone is happy. But while LA try to build around a teenage point guard who’s dad loves being on television, Ainge has turned already one of the top five rosters in the league into a definite championship contender.
The Ball is firmly in their court.