To understand a batsman like Pujara in the year 2017, you have to understand his journey - and that of his family
Cheteshwar Pujara doesn't know of Che Guevara. He doesn't know of the cult following in India for a certain Che Pujara. The cult's symbol is Pujara's face photoshopped on to "Guerrillero Heroico", perhaps the most iconic photograph ever taken, the tight crop of Guevara in his Cuban metal-star military beret as he attended a mass funeral.
The relationship between Che Pujara and his fans is organic, pure even, in that it is unsullied by market forces. The nickname was given in 2009, a year and a half before Pujara had made his Test debut, by Gaurav Sethi, who blogs at Bored Cricket Crazy Indians. It caught on as fans kept seeing big scores next to Pujara's name in brief scores in newspapers and on cricket sites. That Pujara is not aware of any of this makes it more special. He lives in his own world, where he can do what this small - if not small, then less influential - fan base loves him for: score runs, plain old-fashioned runs. Nobody tells Pujara fans to like him for anything other than his runs. He is not on billboards, he doesn't have TV compilation shows dedicated to him, no IPL side hashtagging him with a nickname, and no BCCI-contracted commentators falling over each other to exaggerate his every little act on the field.
As Pujara drives us to Rajkot from his cricket academy - his father and first coach, Arvind Pujara, next to him, and two students, one of them a Ranji player, with me in the rear seat - I ask him about his other nickname, "Steve", at Yorkshire. That, he says, is because he had no nickname in cricket circles - he is called "Chintu" by friends - and perhaps the players at Yorkshire couldn't find any quality that immediately stood out. So they began to call him Steve. It is a little like nicknaming a foreigner "Rahul" in India.
"To hold your mind for so long is the most difficult part of batting. He is able to bat those long innings because he can hold his mind"
In the modern Indian cricket world of "Hitman", "#win", "King Kohli" and "Yuvi", would Pujara have been a different batsman had he known of the cult of Che Pujara?
Those who know him often use the word "firebrand" to describe Arvind Pujara. A wicketkeeper-batsman who played six first-class matches, Arvind was a far cry from the man who sat in control of his emotions as his son took everybody on an emotional rollercoaster, surviving hits on the helmet, using the DRS to reinstate himself on 86, and spending a tea break on 99, to get to a hundred the first time his father had come out to watch him play a Test, in their home town, Rajkot. Arvind quietly accepted congratulations as Cheteshwar went about his job of grinding England down.
Arvind considers batting out the first hour on a seaming Wankhede track as the highlight of his career. He was asked to open only after Saurashtra were put in, and he remembers the Bombay captain, Sunil Gavaskar, chiding his bowlers as he walked off, past a grateful senior batsman, the No. 4, Yajurvindra Singh.
Arvind wasn't one to take injustice lying down. A few years later he would go on to initiate serious litigation with the Saurashtra cricket supremo, almost its feudal lord, Niranjan Shah. He took on Shah the tough way. He didn't rant and rave; he collected evidence and filed a court case for misappropriation of BCCI funds.
The revolution isn't just about attack, attack, attack
© Bored Cricket Crazy Indians
The revolution isn't just about attack, attack, attack © Bored Cricket Crazy Indians
Eventually Arvind gave up the litigation. He insists it was not a sacrifice for the sake of his son's career, which was going to depend on Shah's association. In fact, Cheteshwar was only two or three years old at the time. It was his wife, Reena, he says, who asked him to mellow down, look after their son and not waste his provident fund on cases he stood little chance of winning. "Leave them to god," she, a spiritual woman, told Arvind.
His son has dealt with disappointment and pressure on a cricket field, but Arvind has seen the world outside. He talks of waning idealism and activism among students. No revolution, he says, can be brought about without their involvement; he was one of the thousands of students who fought against the Emergency in 1975. Yet since Cheteshwar's visit to a fair one fine day in Rajkot, his life has mostly been about his son's cricket.
Cheteshwar was about three when his uncle took him to the fair in the big field adjoining the Municipal Ground, for many years the only first-class ground and decent practice facility in Rajkot. There the uncle bought him a little bat. Cheteshwar came home and began playing with it. Somebody photographed him. Arvind looked at that photograph and saw much more than a kid with a toy bat. He has at home a composite of that photo and one of his son playing a pull shot in a Test match. There is a remarkable similarity.
When Reena, who didn't know much about cricket, implored Arvind to concentrate on the "gifted" child, he laughed it off, saying she overrated Cheteshwar because he was her son. Still, he took the advice. Arvind had learnt his cricket, like his father, and the great Vinoo Mankad and Amar Singh, at the European Gymkhana, under Velji Master, and he had served as an assistant coach at Master's camp. He applied those coaching practices to teach Cheteshwar.
"Psychologically, you start going down. Even 50 was not enough for me at times. In England when I scored a fifty, I told myself I can't get out scoring a fifty"
Against a tree outside their modest railway staff quarters, Arvind began bowling underarm to Cheteshwar. When Cheteshwar reached the age of about five, that space seemed cramped. They went to a bigger ground in the colony. Now other kids gathered and watched with curiosity. Arvind took a proposal to the Jagjivan Ram Railways Sports Institute to lay a cement pitch there, on which he would coach kids for free.
Arvind knew making his son a big cricketer was not going to be easy. It would take money and dedication. And he had doubts if he, too, had overestimated his son's talent. Nobody he knew in Rajkot would be able to judge. So he rang the former Saurashtra and India allrounder Karsan Ghavri, who coached for Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited in Mumbai and said: "Kadu bhai, please take a look at my son and tell me if he is actually any good."
Father and son sat in a train and reached Aziz Bagh in Chembur in suburban Mumbai. It was a day off, but Ghavri obliged them. He spent a few hours with Cheteshwar, and told Arvind, "Jann mein dum toh hai [He has something]."
Cheteshwar's training was taken to the next level. He remembers having no days off. No Sunday. No festivals. Nothing. On days he went to school, he would wake at 5am, train at his father's camp, come back and finish homework, go to school from 12.30pm to 5pm - the afternoon shift allowing him to practise in the morning - rush back home and then back to the camp to make the most of whatever was left of daylight. He regretted not being a "normal" Gujarati boy. Gujaratis love their festivals: flying kites on Sankranti, participating in the garba the month before Diwali, and then the big one, Diwali. Even if they were visiting relatives on the festive day, he would play cricket in the afternoon and only then be allowed to play with fireworks in the evening.
This father-son relationship is unusual because it did not make the son dislike the father or the sport. Cheteshwar never resented being made to play cricket. If he told his father he didn't feel all that normal, without holidays and without friends, Arvind would tell him about the focus needed to become an international cricketer.
Chintu (left), Cheteshwar (right)
© Arvind Pujara
Chintu (left), Cheteshwar (right) © Arvind Pujara
Cheteshwar found his father strict, so his mother became his first friend. He would share more with her than the person he spent the best part of his days with, and she would let him do the things he wanted. "She was very smart," he says. "She would do it in a way that she knew that I didn't cross the line, and still got my freedom." She made sure he got a proper diet, because as a vegetarian athlete it needed extra attention. She stitched his first pads at home because full-size men's pads were too big. She gave him spiritual leanings; his habit of meditating for ten to 15 minutes every day still helps him.
The Pujaras could do all they want at the camp, but Arvind knew if his son had to become an international cricketer, he would need to play a lot of matches, and in Rajkot he was not going to get any. Every summer he would take time off work and move his family to Mumbai for the duration of the school vacations. The Pujaras knew nobody in Mumbai to stay with. Besides, Arvind had to forego his salary in years that he exhausted his quota of leave. There was no way they could afford to rent a house.
Arvind called an acquaintance at the Indian Oil Corporation, a Mr Kasbekar, and asked if there were any vacant company flats. "We don't need anything inside the flat," he said, "just electricity and water supply." Sometimes the Pujaras were given a flat that awaited new occupants, at other times flats in buildings that were in the final stages of construction. The buildings were invariably on the outskirts of the city. If they needed a net, they had to get to the ground by 7am, because during the summer break every ground had to be vacated for matches by 8.30am. But it was matches that the Pujaras were after. Ghavri introduced them to Ravi Thakkar, a former Mumbai player and selector who had a camp in Mumbai. The Pujaras requested Thakkar to ring them whenever there was a vacancy in his team. Thakkar spread the word.
Every day, lugging the cricket kit in Mumbai local trains, father and son would head to some cricket ground or the other, hoping for match practice but never guaranteed it. At times Reena would stay back for chores in the borrowed flat; at others she would tag along too. There is a Bollywood song that sums up the young love and limited means of people who move to Mumbai. It talks of a couple from out of town, "do diwane sheher mein" [two loonies in the city], wandering at night and in the afternoons, looking for aab-o-dana [food and water] and ashiyana [shelter]. We had three loonies here, and they were looking for not just food and shelter but also match practice.
"He will play for India," Reena told Arvind. And then she added: "Nobody will be able to stop him. Write these words down, I'll sign the paper"
In a good year Cheteshwar would manage three matches a week, which made it 18 matches on different kinds of pitches over the summer vacation. "We didn't get these many matches in a year in Rajkot," Arvind says. He still uses the word "we" when he talks about Cheteshwar's cricket.
Every time you see Pujara put too heavy a price on his wicket, or bat without the freedom of other players, think of the cost of every innings when his batting was being moulded. Those 18 innings in a good summer vacation, the sacrifices to get those 18 innings, the discipline that came with it, they have shaped Pujara the batsman.
When Cheteshwar's first big selection, in a representative Under-14 side, was to take him to Pune, he cried at the thought of being separated from his mother. On that trip he made his first friends outside home. Soon after that he scored his first triple-century. Arvind wanted to take him out of Rajkot and move to Bangalore, but Reena vetoed it. "You are worrying unnecessarily," she told Arvind. "He will play for India."
"I don't know where she got that confidence from," Arvind says. "And then she added these words: 'Nobody will be able to stop him. Write these words down, I'll sign the paper.'
"Not for the first or the last time I was outvoted by the mother-son duo."
Cheteshwar did not know much about life outside his parents and his cricket. He went about scoring runs. When he came home one day from an inter-district match at the age of 17, life's realities struck. His mother, who had been suffering from breast cancer for two years, had died while he was on his way back.
"At that time I didn't know what cancer was," he says. "I didn't know there were diseases that are incurable or there are diseases whose chances of cure are very limited. I had never any awareness about the science. I knew she had cancer but I didn't know how big the cancer was. I always had faith that she hadn't done anything wrong, so there won't be anything wrong with her."
Under Virat Kohli's captaincy, Pujara has averaged 58.73 from 21 Tests, scoring 1762 runs, including five hundreds. In the 27 Tests of Pujara played where Kohli did not captain, he made 2036 runs at 46.27 with six hundreds
© Getty Images
Under Virat Kohli's captaincy, Pujara has averaged 58.73 from 21 Tests, scoring 1762 runs, including five hundreds. In the 27 Tests of Pujara played where Kohli did not captain, he made 2036 runs at 46.27 with six hundreds © Getty Images
Five days after her death was an Under-19 match that Cheteshwar did not want to play. His father told him Reena would have wanted him to. In his third game back, he scored a hundred.
"She used to switch off all the lights at home at 9pm," Arvind says, "so that Chetes sleeps early. Once he fell asleep, she would get up and finish the chores. She gave him spirituality, she gave him the balance of mind. She made sure he always got a satvik [virtuous] diet. She told me beforehand he will play for India. I get emotional every time I think of how she didn't live long enough to see that happen."
The Rajkot-Jamnagar highway on a hot May morning, opposite the new cricket ground in Rajkot, on whose Test debut Pujara scored a hundred. I had to cancel a visit here because Cheteshwar received a late call-up to play the Times Shield final in Mumbai. Just like the old days: going to Mumbai for match practice, which is always better than a hundred nets, the Pujaras maintain. At 7am Cheteshwar pulls up in a black car with no tints on the windows, listening to Bollywood songs on the radio.
We have to go the Pujaras' cricket academy, a further 10km. There he will train with his father watching. There are still no days off. Arvind and his brother Bipin Pujara, who played more first-class cricket than Arvind, are already there. The academy has no name; they haven't felt the need, the Pujaras say. The kids, who are trained for free, report at the Pujara residence and are brought to the academy in two coaches. The only selfish motive for the Pujaras is that Cheteshwar can get quality practice there with the best cricketers in town. The official cricket ground is out of bounds in the off-season.
The academy has a room for a caretaker, a tin-roofed area for an open-air gym and kit bags, and a big playing field. The outfield is still a work in progress, and it requires calling in water tankers in the summer, but a variety of pitches are ready. As with Pujara's batting, there are no indulgences: it is a minimalist facility that serves its purpose. On weekdays it provides them good nets, on the weekend a good match. If there is an indulgence, it's the lemongrass that lifts the milky tea that Arvind and I drink. Cheteshwar, of course, won't have the milk tea, and begins to warm up.
Cheteshwar's training was taken to the next level. He remembers having no days off. No Sunday. No festivals. Nothing. He regretted not being a "normal" Gujarati boy
"These bowlers today are not state-level players, but he will still bat with seriousness," Arvind says. "Just the physicality of batting long hours is sometimes not appreciated enough. Your neck starts to hurt after a while, for example. How do you concentrate then? By concentrating for long hours in practice.
"The beauty of cricket is, it never goes stale. No matter how experienced you are, when you go out to bat, it is a new game. Your experience helps, no doubt, but you never know which day what works. There are so many variables: the pitch, the atmospheric conditions, bowlers, your own fitness. Cricket doesn't get old; like a software, you have to keep upgrading. You have to stay prepared for everything."
The pitch that Pujara bats on is damp, and he is rapped on the knuckles by one that rears off a length. Arvind stops talking. The eyes don't move off Cheteshwar. Only once he indicates he is okay does Arvind resume speaking. When Cheteshwar is done, we lap the ground while talking. He has already told me he will not go deep into his technique because he doesn't want to give oppositions any ideas.
I am after the structure and philosophy of Pujara's batting. He is traditional in philosophy but his technique is not textbook. He doesn't know how his bottom-handed grip came about, but it seems a product of low and slow surfaces where power has to be imparted with the hands. "When I first had this grip, it was slightly awkward," he says. "My father told me the most important thing is the way you face the ball. The moment the bat comes down, it has to be straight. The way I play the ball, the face of the bat is always straight."
If there is a shot that defines Pujara it is the one with which he deflated spinners during the last home season, in the course of 1316 Test runs: charging them and hitting them between mid-on and midwicket.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
This is a shot that Pujara developed entirely in one month in 2008, when he scored three triple-hundreds, two in the U-22 CK Nayudu Trophy and one in the Ranji Trophy. He remembers playing the stroke regularly back then and he can now play it in his sleep. He knows batsmen who go through drills to pick the right ball to step out to; he just does it. He cannot articulate what lengths or what trajectories he plays the shot to; something just clicks, watching the bowler's release. Other than on extreme pitches with unpredictable turn, he doesn't remember a time he has struggled with it.
The precision and the mastery of his craft show in the freeze frames. While some batsmen initiate their foray with the ball still in the bowler's hand, Pujara never does until the ball has left it. There is no premeditation, just a quick reading of the length and a response to it. It is not simply the 71 runs from 98 balls, 56 runs from 46 balls and 46 runs from 56 balls he scored by stepping out to spinners against Australia, England and New Zealand across the last home season, the value of the shot lay in the short deliveries that followed.
Pujara's batting against spinners is built around this shot: on an average he steps out to them once every seven balls. Because he gets to face a lot of spin in India, there is a broader structure to his innings: he starts slowly and watchfully, and once he is in, he accelerates breathtakingly. There is no pattern, though, according to him. No natural game. As a Test batsman, he believes, you can't say you want to bat in a certain manner. "You can't have a set pattern," he says. "That I am just going to take my time. Or once I am settled, then only I am going to play the shots. Batting is about rhythm."
Pujara developed an unfortunate rhythm in one phase of his career. After scoring a century in South Africa in 2013-14, he went to New Zealand and England and returned this string of scores: 23, 19, 17, 38, 55, 28, 43, 24. It was unusual for him to not make eight straight starts count. Then came a bit of a rut that carried on from England into the Australia tour of 2014-15. He got out in a variety of ways on these tours: to a good outswinger, to a good inswinger, to a short ball into the body, caught at silly mid-on, failing to keep a square cut down, to one that swung one way and seamed the other, to an offbreak from Moeen Ali that didn't turn, and to at least two decisions he could probably have reversed through the DRS.
There are two ways of looking at this period. One is that Pujara was doing the first part of his job, of shielding the rest of the batsmen from the new ball and fresh bowlers. On a seaming track at Lord's in 2014, the only Test India won that series, Pujara faced 117 balls after coming in to bat in the third over, and Ajinkya Rahane benefited from it. On average, over the tours of South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia, Pujara walked out to bat in the eighth over, and the No. 4, Virat Kohli, could wait until the 24th.
Those 18 innings in a good summer vacation in Mumbai, the sacrifices to get those 18 innings, the discipline that came with it, they have shaped Pujara the batsman
The other way of looking at it was, of course, Pujara's average of 31.79 with just one hundred in 24 innings.
"Psychologically, you start going down," Pujara says. "You feel there is something wrong with your batting, but ultimately it is not. I went through a phase where I was pressurising myself too much that I am not scoring runs, that I am getting out in 30s, 40s. Even 50 was not enough for me at times. In England when I scored a fifty, I told myself I can't get out scoring a fifty. I am someone who scores a double against England. Later on I realised I have to accept my failure."
What exactly was this failure? Did he ever feel he ran out of mental energy after defending for 30 runs over two hours where another batsman might have reached 50? This has, in fact, been the biggest criticism of Pujara from commentators, and perhaps from within the team too.
"See, when you are playing overseas you can't play in such a manner, especially in England," Pujara says. "One innings I want to pinpoint is Lord's first innings. I got 28 on a green top, but ultimately it helped the team. On many occasions, the openers didn't get good starts throughout the series. That also puts a little more pressure on the batsman who is walking in at No. 3. Most of the times you are playing the new ball. I can't put the blame on someone. You walk in to bat in over three, four, five, you are always under pressure. And if you are not scoring too many runs, it puts you under even more pressure."
I think of Ricky Ponting, of Viv Richards and Richie Richardson, of Ian Chappell preaching the value of a dominating No. 3. I ask him if in this period he ever felt, "Hey this is not working, I will go out and counterattack today."
"No," Pujara says. "Never. When it comes to Test cricket, you have to play on the merit of the ball. I am not a kind of batsman, someone like Sehwag or Warner, their game is such that they will keep on attacking. Whether it is a tough Test match or a normal Test match. They don't care about the situation. If the ball is seaming, there is no way I can play a bad shot and get out."
© Cheteshwar Pujara
© Cheteshwar Pujara
I ask him if he envies batsmen who are not bogged down by this pressure, because they have the mental freedom to play their shots. I ask him if he ever feels like showing off his talent: he has the shots, after all.
"It is not about showing off your talent," Pujara says. "Cricket is all about winning each and every game. If I want to show off my talent, I can do it at first-class level now. Not at the international level, where so much is at stake. If we lose one wicket, if I get out, I know my wicket is very precious, because I am batting in the top order. You don't want to put your team under pressure. If it is second innings, if we are far ahead, then I can do that."
What about those who want to play their natural game? Is "natural game" all hogwash? "I think so," he says. "When it comes to Test cricket, you have to play by the situation. There is no natural game."
Then Pujara talks about the Ranchi Test, in which he batted for 672 minutes for his 202. The series was level, Australia had scored 451, bowled with discipline, and if India had lost, Australia would have retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. It was a track right up Pujara's alley: slow, low, with little mischief. A natural Pujara innings here would have been rapid acceleration after he got himself in.
"When I was playing on 100, they took the new ball, and I was like, 'I will get to my 150 like this,'" he says.
"Like you usually do," I say.
"Yeah, usually I do," he says. "Suddenly I see Virat got out. It wasn't a good ball. He played such a shot that he got out. He also said that many times he will hit that for a four."
"There, that is 'natural game'," I say.
"It is not natural game. Many times, I also know Virat, I don't know whether it was his injury or what it was… I mean at that stage we thought that I would quickly score some runs. Once he got out, Ajinkya [Rahane] came in, he got some runs, but later on he was also struggling a bit. So I told myself there is no way I am giving my wicket away. At this stage if I get out, they are through. Personally I have always thought: as the Indian team, what do we want, and where do we want to get ultimately? You have to play like that. Not as an individual. 'I have to play like this, this is my natural game' - that is all bullshit."
Pujara, let it be clear, is not a batsman in love with his forward defence. For him, the only currency of batting is runs, not how high his elbow is. It is rare in modern cricket, even Test cricket, for batsmen to will their way through tough periods. Bowlers know dot balls bring about wickets, even if they are achieved by bowling wide outside off with an 8-1 field. Commentators are quick to chide a batsman who doesn't play his shots under pressure. I ask Pujara if he feels he is playing in the wrong era.
"It is easy to play shots," he says. "When you start playing shots, that means your game is not capable enough to play the Test format. You are trying to survive there rather than just understand the situation and play accordingly. When you start playing shots, it means you are under pressure as a batsman and you are not able to handle that situation. When you defend confidently you know you are in command, you are on top of the bowler, and he doesn't have a chance to get you out. You will ultimately score runs when he bowls a loose ball."
"Personally I have always thought: as the Indian team, what do we want? 'I have to play like this, this is my natural game' - that is all bullshit"
On the surface, Che Guevara and Che Pujara could not be more different. In fact, with his talk of revolution and his battles with authority, perhaps Arvind is a closer match. But as a batsman in the year 2017, Pujara does have something of Che's courage of conviction.
Back in 2008, Pujara had followed up those three triple-centuries in a month with 189 and 176 in his next two Ranji matches. He was already in his fourth first-class season. His record in junior cricket was outstanding, with over 5000 runs in representative age-group matches. At the 2006 U-19 World Cup, he had scored more runs than Rohit Sharma, or anyone else in any team. But senior cricket journalists didn't rate Pujara. That is probably because they spoke to the people who mattered: after one of Pujara's triples, a talent resource development officer is known to have told the selectors that Pujara's shots struggle to reach the boundary. Contemporaries, too, privately said he was a flat-pitch player, a bit like how Rahane's contemporaries said he didn't show up in big matches, although the evidence pointed to the contrary.
One journalist who regularly wrote about Pujara, Sandeep Dwivedi of the Indian Express, was ridiculed by some for talking up the boy from his former home town. Maybe Arvind was right. Rajkot was coming in the way of his son. People would just not rate runs scored in Rajkot.
Pujara's response is simple, but there was barely anyone to say this on his behalf back then. "The thing is, if I am playing for Saurashtra I will play half of my matches in Rajkot. I scored hundreds in away games too. Even in Rajkot, if I scored a double-hundred, the other teams batted on the same wickets. Many a time we used to score 550, the opposition used to get out on 250. We used to enforce follow-on. If it is a flat wicket, I don't think it is possible to… Many players used to say that after fielding for 550 runs, batsmen make errors, but I made runs batting second too."
Pujara's Ranchi innings against Australia lasted 525 balls - the longest by an Indian
© Associated Press
Pujara's Ranchi innings against Australia lasted 525 balls - the longest by an Indian © Associated Press
It didn't matter that a year before those triples, Pujara had batted out two sessions with Nos. 10 and 11 on the final day on a green top in cold and distant Delhi to salvage a point for his team. It didn't matter that Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Karthik, Suresh Raina and S Badrinath were not getting results, and that Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid had begun to slip.
By the time Pujara made his Test debut, a veteran of 50 first-class matches and nearly 4000 runs at 60.39, the alternative cricket media was already enraged. Test Match Sofa, a cricket commentary station that is now off air for legal reasons, was keen to hear Sethi, the creator of "Che Pujara", rant about why Pujara was losing out to players with star qualities whose runs didn't come with a Rajkot-sized asterisk. Then, on debut against Australia in Bangalore, 2010, Pujara scored a match-winning 72 in a chase of 207, and you felt he was on his way.
By the time Pujara played that first Test, something had changed the landscape of Indian cricket forever: the IPL. Kolkata Knight Riders invested in a young Pujara before India did. As he ran for a catch in a practice match in the second season in South Africa - the outfield was unfit for play after overnight rain, but they braved it for a practice match - the ball fell short of where Pujara anticipated it would, plugged itself in the outfield, and he went past it. He tried to turn around, but his foot got stuck. His knee collapsed. Time for surgery at the age of 21. He hadn't even played a game for KKR.
Two years later, having just made his Test debut and trying to cement his place in the side, he dived, again during the IPL, on the worst major outfield in India at that time, Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. Time for surgery on the other knee, at 23.
One night during rehab after surgery, at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, Pujara got a call to tell him that his father, alone at home in Rajkot, had had a heart attack. He had lost his mother when he was away for cricket. Surely not again? The flight home was the longest he had ever taken.
India had a new aggressive captain in Kohli, who teamed up with an aggressive coach in Shastri, and with sheer aggression chose Rohit and Raina ahead of Pujara
Pujara likes going back to these dark spells from his life for inspiration. And now every night, no matter where he is, when he is done with his day's work, he calls Arvind. "How did it go?" Arvind says of the contents of their chats. "How was the wicket, was he able to middle the ball, were there any issues. If there is a particular problem, we discuss that. If there is an immediate suggestion in mind, I make that suggestion. He knows his game pretty well himself, but sometimes somebody watching from outside can give a better perspective. He has a lot of things to worry about, I have only one job: to watch."
In the last days of the year 2014, as India toured Australia, one can speculate what father and son spoke about in their phone calls. They might have spoken about how he batted 73 minutes on the final evening in Melbourne to help prevent India from going down 3-0. Or about the ball of the series: an offcutter from Mitchell Johnson that hit the top of his off stump after turning away against his round-the-wicket angle.
There can be little doubt about the contents of the calls in the first week of January, though. Pujara had been dropped. India had a new, aggressive captain in Kohli, who teamed up with an aggressive coach in Ravi Shastri, in the aggressive land of Australia, and with sheer aggression chose Rohit and Raina ahead of Pujara. Nobody told him why.
"Once I heard about it, I was very disappointed that I wouldn't be playing the next Test match," Pujara says. "I thought that whatever happened was not in my control. Even if I wanted to do something about it, I couldn't. I always keep reminding myself of tough situations. I have had many injuries, especially the two knee injuries, which kept me out of the game for a year. I told myself at that time: if I can come back from such a big injury, then I can definitely make a comeback to the Indian team."
I interrupt him there. Injuries happen. The dropping seemed ominous because the leadership team was all about aggression now, or a certain perception of aggression.
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"Mentally, it was tough, it was challenging," he says. "It is never easy to sit out. I would have played around 27 Test matches. I would have got two double-hundreds, I had a decent average, I was successful in most of the tours, apart from New Zealand and Australia. Even in England, many batsmen struggled. There were starts. I got a fifty. I don't know why they dropped me. I actually don't know. The best thing is to start practising again. Start working on my game.
"This had happened in the past. I had learnt from the experience of not accepting my failures and moving forward. One thing I learnt after the England series was to accept my failure and move forward."
"What was your failure in this?" I ask.
And Pujara laughs for a second. "It was the situation," he says. "Personally, I didn't do anything wrong. I told myself that as long as I don't do anything wrong, I should be happy."
So move forward he did, but the world didn't see it. Because over the next seven months, India played the World Cup and the IPL and the Bangladesh ODIs, and nobody talked about Pujara. In August 2015 came the Sri Lanka tour, where India continued to keep him out, losing what looked like an unlosable Test in Galle before levelling the series. For the decider, they didn't have a second opener because of injuries, and Pujara stepped in, carried his bat for 145 on a seaming track, and helped India win the series. The innings took his career average back over 50.
"Yes, everyone did realise that," Pujara says when I ask if the team now knew his value. "It was a crucial time for the Indian team. The series was 1-1. The wicket was such where we lost three-four wickets early on. So everyone did realise, 'He is a valuable player. He should always be there in the team. And that he is one of the best batsmen in the team.'"
"At that time I didn't know what cancer was. I knew she had cancer but I didn't know how big the cancer was"
The only international cricket he played in the next year was a home Test series against South Africa on pitches that took extreme turn, where only Rahane managed a century. When Pujara should have been playing the Tests in the West Indies in 2016, as was his right, it was as if he was playing for his career.
Cricket in the West Indies has become an attritional grind. The pitches are slow, and knowing their own limitations, the West Indian bowlers hide the ball outside off, playing on the batsmen's patience. Pujara struggled to score freely in the first Test, and managed 16 off 67 on the first morning. In the second Test he was even more circumspect, as if he needed to somehow score nothing less than a hundred. When he set off for what would have been his 47th run, off his 159th delivery, he underestimated the slowness of the outfield. The ball failed to beat the man at square leg. Halfway through, Pujara knew he wouldn't be able to beat a direct hit. He put in a desperate dive, it seemed in that moment, for his Test career. Roston Chase hit the stumps. The dismay on Pujara's face told it all.
Sure enough he was left out for the next Test, in favour of Rohit. At the toss, Kohli justified his call: "Rohit Sharma can change Test matches in a session. Taking nothing away from Pujara; he has been solid. Everybody needs to get chances."
Deep within, Pujara knew he had failed at his own game. He had got off to similarly slow starts in some of his important Test innings, but he had managed to turn them around: from 18 off 65 to 204 off 341 against Australia in Hyderabad in 2013; 9 off 64 to 153 off 270 against South Africa in Johannesburg a few months later; and 32 off 116 to 145 off 289 in that series-winning knock against Sri Lanka. Not now.
I ask Pujara if he knew he was going to be dropped if he didn't get a hundred. "It was always there for some time till the West Indies tour, because I didn't get a big hundred, although I got a hundred in Sri Lanka," he says. "There was always a doubt whether I will play or not. My place was not secured, and that was a fact."
Pujara with his wife, Puja, in the UK
© Cheteshwar Pujara
Pujara with his wife, Puja, in the UK © Cheteshwar Pujara
This time it was different, though. Unlike in Australia or Sri Lanka, there was someone from the team management talking to Pujara: Shastri's successor, Anil Kumble. I ask Pujara why he himself had not gone to talk to Kohli or Shastri on the previous occasions. "I couldn't," he says. "I couldn't go and ask him [Shastri]. He had just moved into the Indian team. It was his first series. I didn't know him well. I couldn't go and ask anyone why I was dropped, and what do I have to do to make a comeback, what do you think is wrong with my game."
Pujara returned to the XI in the next Test, in Port-of-Spain, and has not been out of it since. I ask about the conversation with the man who might have rescued his career. "I was conveyed a message from Anil bhai," he says. "He was very clear what changes he wanted. Not as a batsman but in my mindset. Once I had a chat with Anil bhai, I was very sure what he was trying to say. He is someone who knows what I was going through as a player, and what I had to do to convert my starts into big hundreds.
"One thing he mentioned was intent, and not the strike rate; I want to be very clear about this. He told me it was the intent I needed to change, not the strike rate. If I had a positive intent, the bowlers are under pressure, and they can't bowl where they want to. That is something I worked on and it helped me."
Kumble also went on record with an emphatic defence of Pujara. Before the Kolkata Test against New Zealand last September, Kumble said he was an old-fashioned man who didn't get the fuss around strike rate. As far as he was concerned, in Test cricket, strike rate was for bowlers, not batsmen.
"I don't know why they dropped me. I actually don't know. The best thing is to start practising again. Start working on my game"
"When your team management backs you, then you know you are there and you just have to bat freely and not have to worry about other things," Pujara says about that press conference. I ask if it was the first time he felt a clear vote of confidence from the team management. "Yeah, because there was a clear communication, what was expected of me."
The conversation with Kumble helped Pujara in more ways than one. "I have realised that, after the chat with Anil bhai, you have to bat the same way whether you get picked or dropped. When I am playing at international level, I can't be thinking if I get dropped when will I get my next opportunity? I can't restrict myself. If I get a half-volley, I have to hit it for four."
There was a phase, he says, where "I was over-cautious for some time, I do agree".
Pujara says whenever he is under pressure as a batsman, when he is finding it hard to concentrate on the next ball, when negative thoughts cloud his batting, he starts to think of what the team needs. Looking at the larger picture takes his mind away from his batting, which lets him play instinctively. In the era of "aggressive cricket", it was as if his instinctive batting went against the philosophy of the team.
Pujara cites Kumble, along with his father and Dravid, as a major influence on his batting. In Bangalore against Australia this year, when India were bowled out for 189 on the first day on an extremely difficult track, Pujara says Kumble asked him to play in a certain way in the second innings. He went to the nets to try to implement those changes. He wouldn't say what the corrections were, but they had to do with using his feet and the depth of his crease, and with Rahane employing the sweep to play with the lengths of Nathan Lyon, who had taken eight wickets on the first day but whose spinning finger now had a blister.
"You can't have a set pattern. That I am just going to take my time. Or once I am settled, then only I am going to play the shots. Batting is about rhythm"
© Getty Images
"You can't have a set pattern. That I am just going to take my time. Or once I am settled, then only I am going to play the shots. Batting is about rhythm" © Getty Images
In the second innings Pujara and Rahane produced a pocket-book version of the Laxman-Dravid Eden Gardens magnum opus. They batted through the only wicketless session of the match. It was such a difficult pitch that the 92 exhausted Pujara as much as a double-century would have done.
What happens if another, flashier, player plays a loose shot and gets out? Something like what Kohli told Pujara about his shot in Ranchi: on another day, this would have gone for four. "That's how he plays," it is said, and the player goes to the limited-overs leg of the tour and scores a lot of runs on flatter tracks against the white ball. Hitting the ball is not to be relegated as some sort of a lesser skill in an imagined class system in cricket, not in the year 2017 at any rate, but it is easier to not care about failure - and thus play with freedom - when you know your next chance is three days away.
For Pujara, if he goes out, he stares at months and months of nothingness. Even if he is not dropped from Tests, exciting batsmen can score attractive runs in limited-overs cricket in these months. Indian selectors are known to succumb to the temptation of introducing - reintroducing in some cases - such players into Tests to change matches in one session. All the while, Pujara stays in Rajkot, trying to make the best of the bowling resources and the practice facilities to stay in touch with cricket, which keeps evolving every day.
Different players have different levels of insecurity. This is why an important part of the team management's job is to make players feel secure. Just the fact that Kumble showed he cared for Pujara turned around a mid-career rut he found himself in. Which is why I wonder if he would have batted differently during those difficult periods had he known there were others who cared for Che Pujara. Cared enough to know he was always going to struggle to enjoy the same degree of leeway as others.
"The creation of Che Pujara, the name and the visual that went with it, were to prop up his image," Gaurav Sethi says. "Even back then I feared how easy it would be for a cricketer like Che to be lost in obscurity; because he didn't fit the bill of a star cricketer, I feared he would never get endorsements, or worse, even the backing of captains more skewed towards picking ODI batsmen for Test spots as opposed to Test bats for Test spots. With some players you sense it will always be tougher, just as it's way easier for some. Possibly because some players are playing way more than cricket, they're playing stardom."
The academy has no name. The kids, who are trained for free, report at the Pujara residence and are brought to the academy in two coaches. The only selfish motive for the Pujaras is that Cheteshwar can get quality practice there with the best cricketers in town
Pujara has always had to work harder for things, and once he gets them he spends a lot of his energy preserving them. He doesn't have major endorsements. He doesn't have agents who call up editors to arrange interviews on the eve of selection meetings. He has always had to fit into a world of flamboyant superstars. As Sethi says, he does only cricket.
I ask Pujara what he does when he gets angry. He says the only period he remembers getting angry was 2014, when he kept getting out after getting in. He didn't throw his bat around or behave nastily. "I keep on thinking why I got out, and what I should have done to not get out, and how I should have scored runs," he says. "Sometimes when I score a fifty, I will still feel frustrated that I have missed out on a hundred. Over time I have realised that the best way to come out of frustration is to get engaged in some other activity."
What if some person, or certain decisions, make him angry? Pujara says he doesn't get angry at people. Perhaps he doesn't want to go back to any unpleasant episodes. On the back of a big home season, he is in a peaceful place.
A week before we met, he was slogging balls all over his academy to work on his short-format game. I tell him he might struggle to play T20 because batsmen such as Robin Uthappa attempt a boundary almost every second ball, which goes against the grain of Pujara's batting. He says he doesn't aim to be an Uthappa but a Hashim Amla or a Kane Williamson. There is still place for such batsmen in T20 cricket.
The day we meet, he signs with Nottinghamshire, and the structure of the nets sessions has changed. He is happy his summer won't be wasted, that he will be able to travel to England with his wife and his father, drive around for matches, do his own laundry and dishes, go for long walks with his wife, and most importantly get to play pretty competitive cricket. Three loonies still, a little less loony, a lot more secure.
His father, though, still worries and watches every match Cheteshwar plays on TV, except for those from the West Indies: his health doesn't allow him late nights. His biggest worry earlier was that the world would not get to watch the kind of batsmanship he had seen from his son in the nets. I ask Cheteshwar if the world has seen it now. "Not yet," he says. "Still feel the kind of innings I have played in domestic cricket, I have not played at international level. I would like to repeat such innings in international cricket: 148 against Delhi to save one point.
Pujara fans don't need endorsements, tattoos or funky nicknames to root for a batsman who satisfies them in the best form of them all - serious run-scoring
© Getty Images
Pujara fans don't need endorsements, tattoos or funky nicknames to root for a batsman who satisfies them in the best form of them all - serious run-scoring © Getty Images
"Another innings was with Mohammed Shami in West Indies [in an unofficial Test], when we were chasing 200, and we were seven down for 95. And we ended up winning. He scored 27 and I got 96. Apart from that I have got triple-hundreds in domestic cricket, which I haven't done at international level."
I ask Arvind the same question, and he talks of the Ranchi double-hundred, at 525 balls the longest Test innings for India. "The level of concentration in that innings was extremely high," Arvind says. "If you play such a long innings, you at least get beaten on occasion, you make some mistake, you show some restlessness. You couldn't see any of that in this innings.
"To hold your mind for so long is the most difficult part of batting. You decide anything in your life. Let's say you say you won't lie today, but somewhere you will end up doing it. So many things happen on a cricket field that can set your mind doing other things than the way you know is best to bat. He is able to bat those long innings because he can hold his mind."
Arvind remembers controlling his emotions when watching Cheteshwar score that hundred in Rajkot. "You get emotional," he says. "Your place is not secure. If you make a mistake… If the ball that gets him is good, it is okay. You just worry he shouldn't play a loose shot."
Others have the freedom to play the loose shot, the natural game, I suggest. "We don't," Arvind says, again using "we" for his son. "It's good actually. He can absorb all that negativity and turn it into something positive. He gets that from his mother. It's good he hasn't got everything from me."
The Cricket Monthly is changing. After 35 issues, beginning August 2014, it is going to become a more regular part of your life. Instead of a fully formed issue appearing at the start of every month, one feature will be published every day or so. In its more dynamic form, TCM will be more topical and urgent, while staying true to its founding ambition of scale and depth, and combining quality of writing with rigour of reportage and the spirit of narrative storytelling. It's going from monthly to month-long.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.