As Cheteshwar Pujara, born January 25, 1988, celebrates his 25th birthday, comparisons are aplenty, labelling him as the new Rahul Dravid. Arunabha Sengupta says that only time can tell whether he will rise to Dravid’s stature, but the No 3 position in the Indian batting order could not be in better hands.
As greats move away from the scene, the twilight effect from their brilliant past paints the horizon in surreal colours and casts giant shadows on the present.
The promising youth of the current day, with belief and ability bearing the happiest of hopes, often lose bearings – their own signposts frequently hidden behind milestones projected from the nostalgic past.
Norman O’Neill, that brave soldier of Australian cricket who didn’t flinch when struck by the fastest of bowlers, could have had a career at par with the greatest of batsmen if not burdened by constant comparison with the ultimate greatness of Don Bradman.
With his somewhat ungainly run to the wicket, the action of Phil DeFreitas would never be emulated by thousands, but he was a decent enough medium-pacer and a useful hard-hitting tail ender. But, he committed the cardinal mistake of scoring 40 and taking five wickets in a victorious Ashes Test on debut, that too during the waning days of Ian Botham – thus forever tainting his career with the stigma of unfulfilled promise.
And when Sanjay Manjrekar unravelled blemishless perfection of technique, plundering runs against Imran Khan and Wasim Akram barely two seasons after Sunil Gavaskar had called it a day, the obvious comparisons loomed formidably over his young talented willow, and his career graph plummeted fast to despairing depths.
History of the game is littered with such tales of created burden, unfair comparisons which bore down on rising youngsters with daunting weight, preventing the fledgling careers from soaring to glorious heights.
As Cheteshwar Pujara celebrates his 25th birthday today, he proudly bears the torch of Indian batting brilliance. Thus far it has been held aloft with a sense of purpose and maturity beyond his years, glowing brightly even in the dimness that surrounds the current cricketing fortunes of the nation.
But, walking out as the Indian No 3 after January 2012 is fraught with the same dangers as discussed above. And when this Saurashtra run-machine is in full flow, cutting one off the back-foot behind point, or forcing a short ball past mid-wicket, and especially when getting his head right over the ball before essaying one of those cover drives that seem to emerge out of the coaching manual, the parallels are inevitably drawn.The spirit of Rahul Dravid the batsman tends to flicker quite often, not least in the earnest honesty with which Pujara approaches the game.
However, the comparisons are unfair – and as history tells us, can be unsettling as well. Dravid was rigorously tested by the probing questions of time and came out with flying colours. Only the years that stretch ahead will tell us whether Pujara will be able to stand up to a similar test of time. The sophisticated statistical tools can be sharpened and brought to the fore to measure the two, but it is an exercise that will have to bide it’s time for a decade or so. Before that the stamp of time will be unwilling to sanction such comparative analysis. Neither can Pujara be elevated to the hallowed pedestal on which Dravid now rests – before his willow cuts through the years ahead, carving the same sort of niche for himself as his illustrious predecessor. Nor can he be written off as a pretender as long as his bat keeps answering the questions posed across time and lands.
The promise of Pujara
Pujara has had a great start to his Test career. He has amassed 761 runs in his nine Tests at a staggering average of 58.33. His ability to concentrate for long periods, which has brought him triple hundreds in domestic cricket, has been steadily transferred to the highest level. The penchant for scripting marathon knocks has already made itself manifest in the handful of Tests he has played. The portents are excellent.
True, Pujara is yet to play in some of the most demanding lands – in the Blighty and Down Under, on the deviously turning Sri Lankan wickets and the diabolically seaming pitches of New Zealand. He played two Tests in South Africa, making the trip as a one-Test old rookie, and managed a meagre 31 in three innings. Work needs to be done on that front, but not much can be inferred from those couple of outings. Even Dravid could score only at 29.71 across four tours in that land of hard wickets and mean pace attacks.
At home, Pujara’s record has been sublime so far. For the ones who scoff at that as a fad-fed knee-jerk reaction, let me point out that batsmen have to play roughly half their matches in their own land, and hence greatness necessitates a fantastic home record. More than his runs, it is his attitude that has provided a spark of optimism in a gloomy year so far. He has always put a price on his wicket, and the tagged amount has increased exponentially every time he has walked out to take guard.
In the scores amassed this season, there have been unmistakable glimpses and symptoms that have spoken of untold class. At the same time, there remains the outside chance that this is merely a peak in form that will perhaps dampen to less regaling runs in foreseeable future. Only time and travel can answer the questions. Till then it is perhaps best to enjoy his exploits as his career blooms to its full glory.
Right now, all that can be said about Pujara is that the mantle of Dravid is secure in the hands of the latter. There is no one more deserving to carry on the saga of playing the sentinel against foreign attacks.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)