Not the second Rahul Dravid, but the first Cheteshwar Pujara

Cheteshwar Pujara has got all the ingredients to last long and make hay © AFP

By Karthik Parimal

In the summer of 2011, on a pleasant afternoon at Cape Town, Dale Steyn was in his element. Prodigiously swinging the ball, he had most of the Indian batsmen in a fix, although the scoreboard failed to reflect it. Cheteshwar Pujara walked in to bat at No. 6, after VVS Laxman was run out for the seventh time in his career. The match, it appeared, was meandering towards a draw, with two days and two-and-a-half innings still remaining on a placid track. It was imperative for a young Pujara to make a statement, since this was to be India’s last Test of the season, and the World Cup and a string of T20 tournaments would soon put the longer format on a backburner.

One hoped Pujara would pocket the opportunity; there is very little to dislike about him. However, Steyn was in the middle of producing one of his best spells that year. Umpteen times, the ball appeared to hit the top of the middle stump, but swung late to beat the outside edge. It left many a batsmen flummoxed, and on this occasion, he subtly bowled on Pujara’s legs, before generating a last-minute outswing that trapped the latter right in front of the stumps.  Pujara, playing in just his third Test, was dismissed for two. Back then, little did he know that injuries and other factors would hamper his progress for a substantial period of time.

He went back to the drawing board, underwent rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and started scoring fluently in the domestic circuit. The following year, in June, he was picked to lead India A to tour West Indies. He struck form, standing tall when almost every other batsman around him collapsed. He scored 96 during one such tour game, which India narrowly went on to win. “That is an innings that is close to my heart. We were eight down for just 115 on the board while chasing a target of 188. I and Shami Ahmed put on a partnership, without which we could have lost that Test. Staying unbeaten and contributing for my team’s cause was important, and that innings is one I’ll cherish for a long time to come,” he fondly recollects.

It was only in the August of 2012, against New Zealand, at Hyderabad, that he returned to the international fold. By then, Indian cricket was in doldrums. The team had been whitewashed in England and Australia, seldom impressed at home, and were minus the services of Rahul Dravid and Laxman. The absence of these two stalwarts, it was believed, would create a void that would take years to fill. It was for the second time that Pujara walked in to bat at No. 3 in his Test career (he scored 72 versus the Australians on his debut at this position), but this time, the spot was his to keep, provided he performed. A stupendous 159 is what he could manage.

Immediately, people wondered if he was the answer to India’s middle-order conundrum. There was a fair bit of scepticism too, understandably, since talent fizzling out is not uncommon in the region. However, there was something about Pujara’s calm demeanour that was reassuring. When he faced a formidable English attack three months later, albeit at home, the answers came out tumbling. He scored an unbeaten 206 at Ahmedabad and followed it with 135 at Mumbai. He was a bright spot in what was otherwise a gloomy series for India.

Like spotted by many an expert, Pujara has the technique to thrive away from home as well. He can cut, drive, pull and glance, gracefully. Bowl short to him, and the hook is unfurled. He’s mastered a skill that not many Indian batsmen are adept at. The shot led to his downfall once, the series against New Zealand being the case in point, but it did not take long to remedy the issue; Peter Siddle will testify to that. The English bowlers tried to get him to hook to the fielder at deep too, but their efforts were largely futile, for Pujara had learnt to keep the ball down as well. That speaks volumes of his work ethic.

His commitment remains undiluted. At a time when most young cricketers come across as brash and are happy with the few seconds of fame and money they pocket through the “hit-and-giggle” form of cricket, Pujara has his feet firmly on the ground. This does not imply that he isn’t suited for limited-overs. Often considered to be Test material, he has quashed the baseless notion with his willow. Having been dropped from the One-Day International (ODI) squad for the series against Pakistan in December 2012, he returned to the domestic fold to represent his side, Saurashtra, in the Ranji Trophy. In a game against Madhya Pradesh, he slammed an unbeaten 203, the last fifty runs of that innings coming in a staggering 17 deliveries. A week later, he scored 352 against Karnataka, at a strike-rate of 82.43.

The following week, he was picked for the One-Day leg of the England series. Although he featured in the squad, he was made to warm the benches. However, the day he dons the blues is not far away, and there is no denying the fact that he will do justice to every format he partakes. Like the Dravids and Laxmans, his attitude and determination supersede his talent, and oftentimes, that is what makes a sportsman tick.

The newbie, though, would want to keep going. In his first 11 Tests, Dravid averaged 48.82, with one century and six fifties under his belt. Pujara averages 67.80, with four hundreds — two of which were double-tons — and one half-century. His conversion rate shows that he is ahead of his predecessor, at least for the moment, but Pujara, rightly, believes the analogising to be absurd.  “One just cannot be compared with Indian cricket’s greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. What they’ve achieved is tremendous. It’d be an extraordinary feat to even get close to the number of runs Sachin and Rahul bhai have scored,” he answered the recurrent question, in an interview to CricketCountry a few months ago.

Indeed, to emulate the likes of Dravid will be arduous, but Pujara has charted his own course. A cool head on his shoulders, substance and style, he’s got all the ingredients to last long and make hay. India must rejoice the arrival of its first Cheteshwar Pujara, and not fret about finding another Rahul Dravid. After all, there can only be one of each kind.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)