Cheteshwar Pujara’s 100th Test: The fiery fighter has come a long way

The Saurashtra veteran has been the apt successor for Rahul Dravid, frustrating bowlers, saving India from defeats, and copping body blows aplenty in the bargain.

Cheteshwar Pujara set to play his 100th Test
What Pujara brings is calmness. A certain unshakeable belief that till he is there, all will be well. That no situation is beyond him. That nothing will faze him. File photo: Twitter/Cheteshwar Pujara

In many parts of the world, ‘13’ is considered an unlucky number, with negative connotations attached to it. There is even a word for the fear, or avoidance, of 13 – triskaidekaphobia. Various theories abound about why 13 is deemed a number to fear, ranging from the religious to the status of 12 as the perfect number and therefore setting an impossible precedent.

It’s unclear if Cheteshwar Pujara is superstitious or ever felt 13 was a number to avoid, but one can say with certainty that if he did harbour any misgivings, they would remain in the past. On Friday, the opening day of the second Test against Australia at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in the national capital, Pujara will become the 13th man to represent India in 100 Tests.

It’s in the fitness of things that the team that facilitated a wonderful maiden Test appearance should also be the one against whom he will be playing his milestone match. Australia hold a special place in Pujara’s cricketing heart. It was against them that, on debut in Bengaluru in October 2010 and on being elevated to No. 3 at the expense of Rahul Dravid in the second innings, he made a sparkling 72 to help India hunt down a potentially challenging target of 207.

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It was against them that, going above and beyond the call of duty, he rode blows to body and limb, but never the heart or soul, in stitching together one of India’s most courageous and influential innings in Brisbane in 2021. It was also against them that, in 2018-19, Pujara faced 1,258 deliveries and made 521 runs at a staggering 74.42 to play the lead role in India’s first-ever series triumph Down Under.

Unlike Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or KL Rahul, Pujara doesn’t quicken the pulse. He doesn’t exhilarate with stroke production of aesthetic magnificence, and he doesn’t entertain with muscular hits or meaty strikes. He doesn’t hare between the wickets like there is no tomorrow, he doesn’t command, or even seek, attention. And yet, in terms of importance and contributions and determination and stubborn bloody-mindedness, he is second to none. To none.

What Pujara brings is calmness. A certain unshakeable belief that till he is there, all will be well. That no situation is beyond him. That nothing will faze him. That he will ride sledges and body blows and peachy deliveries and outstanding spells with a broad willow and a broader heart. That he will leave everything out in the middle, that the India cap means more to him than anything else and perhaps to anyone else. It’s something ingrained in him by father and coach Arvind, and it’s a reality wife Puja reconciled to a long time back. In Cheteshwar Pujara’s life, there is cricket, and then there is everything else.

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It’s possible that one may wonder what the virtue in that is. After all, as a professional cricketer, isn’t that what he is pretty much expected to be like? As a professional sportsperson, how can anything else be more important? We all know the answer to that, don’t we? Especially in this day and age where distractions are aplenty and it’s easy to get carried away with the fame and the adulation and the riches and the hero worship, Pujara is a bit of an anachronism, much like his batting is considered to be. And yet, it’s that same anachronism that has propelled him to spectacular heights that he doesn’t, typically, use to look down on the rest.

As is inevitable in an international career that has already spanned 12 years and four months, Pujara’s journey has been anything but smooth sailing. In his first overseas tour, to South Africa in 2010, he was put through the wringer by Dale Steyn and Co., and it seemed as if his anointment as Dravid’s natural successor at No. 3 in the Test batting line-up was born more out of hope than conviction.

Thankfully, while many others might have felt that way, Pujara overcame whatever self-doubts there might have been through unstinting hard work. It’s not that he felt he had a point to prove to anyone else; Pujara has been his best judge and his worst critic, and even though the popular opinion is that perfection is overrated, Pujara has tried to be the perfect version that he can be rather than conform to other people’s definition of perfection.

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Oftentimes, his strike rate in Tests has been held against him – he was dropped for the first two Tests in Sri Lanka, in 2015, in Kohli’s first full series as captain because he wasn’t deemed to be fulfilling the mantra of positivity and taking the game forward that had become the calling card in the immediacy of the end of the Mahendra Singh Dhoni era – but hurt as he might have been, Pujara responded to those slights with typical feistiness.

Recalled for the third Test of that same series but in the unfamiliar role of opener because India were handicapped by the unavailability of their regular openers, he responded with a glorious unbeaten 145 on a difficult surface, becoming only the fourth Indian after Sunil Gavaskar, Dravid and Virender Sehwag to carry his bat. Typically, he didn’t respond with a string of expletives and a snook at the dressing room but celebrated three figures with a self-satisfied broad grin. Didn’t we say, best judge, worst critic?

That knock reiterated Pujara’s value to a team full of stroke-makers though the axe did hover over his head from time to time and came down in March last year when, like Ajinkya Rahane, he was dropped for the two home Tests against Sri Lanka. Pujara didn’t allow grass to grow under his feet; he went to play for Sussex in the English County Championship, amassed 1,094 runs in eight matches at 109.40 with five centuries, and broke the door open to national team selection again. By then, he was 34, but the message was loud and clear: ‘I am not finished yet’.

As if to drive that point home, he emerged Player of the Series when India defeated Bangladesh 2-0 last December. With India holding a 1-0 lead in this series and looking to pull further ahead in the race to the final of the World Test Championship, don’t discount a Pujara special – obdurate, unflagging, maybe unglamorous, but emphatically memorable.