October 21, 2010

The day Pujara seized his chance

In the last innings of the Bangalore Test, a 22-year-old walked out instead of Rahul Dravid - and made sure he gave those watching plenty to talk about

For one poignant moment Cheteshwar Pujara was a fan again. Looking over the shoulders of his team-mates at the post-match presentation following his audacious innings on the final day of the second Test against Australia in Bangalore, Pujara did not want to miss out on anything Sachin Tendulkar was saying. When Tendulkar finally mentioned his name, Pujara's face lit up.

It was not that he was feeling empty without an acknowledgement from his senior team-mates. His 72 runs in the final innings had shut Australia out of the contest. He had no doubt he belonged among the elite. He just wanted to hear his name, savour the moment, soak in the happiness.

A week later he still is pinching himself in delight. "I am still recovering a little bit," he says. "It is a great feeling, no doubt." But he is not getting carried away. "There are many things to achieve in life. It is a very good start but it is in the past now, and as a cricketer I would like to be in the present."

Only Pujara and his father-mentor-coach-comforter Arvind know how hard it was for him to claim the honour of being India's 266th Test cricketer. Rajkot is no backward town, but in terms of cricketing infrastructure it is the outback. Pujara trained on concrete wickets, with sparse kit, against average bowling, and grew hungry as time ticked by.

At 22, he has not waited all that long to earn a Test berth. It just seems that way, though, since he seems to have been scoring big in domestic cricket forever. In the last four first-class seasons Pujara has averaged at least 50: in 2006-07 he logged 595 runs at 59.50 (two centuries and three fifties); in 2007-08, 807 at 73.36 (three centuries and three fifties); 2008-09, 906 runs at 82.36 (four centuries); and last season he had 554 at 79.14 (one hundred and four fifties).

His desperation possibly had something to do with the fact that contemporaries like Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli seemed to be gaining mileage in the media based on brilliance they had shown in the shorter versions. Pujara did not panic and try and transform his game, though. He suppressed his impatience and kept his focus clear. And when in Bangalore he was told he was in, an hour before the toss, he knew he was ready. He walked in as if he belonged.

On the eve of the Test Gary Kirsten told him to be prepared and that he might get a chance. VVS Laxman was to have a fitness test for back spasms on the morning of the match. Pujara went to bed thinking Laxman would probably make it.

During the morning warm-up, Laxman walked up to Pujara to tell him he wasn't feeling okay and that he might not play. "He also said sorry to keep me hanging in the balance," Pujara says. "Because I was making my debut he understood that if I was playing and got the news 45 minutes or an hour before the match, it was not good. But he couldn't do anything about it and I told him that."

When he walked in to bat on the third day, he couldn't have asked for a better partner. Tendulkar was already in the zone, inching towards his double-century.

"Sachin paaji told me, 'You will feel some pressure initially because it is your debut match. You will feel some nerves and stiffness in the body. But just enjoy it, don't put pressure on yourself. It will go away after 10-15 minutes.'

"When I went in I did not feel anything. But as soon as I reached the crease I saw my name followed by the word 'debutant'. Everyone started screaming. Then I felt, 'Oh, this is the moment I have always wanted to be in'"

"When I went in I did not feel anything. But as soon as I reached the crease I saw my name, followed by the word 'debutant'. Everyone started screaming. Then I felt, 'Oh, this is the moment I have always wanted to be in.' It was different from a Ranji game."

Having watched Tendulkar and M Vijay dominate the Australian bowling for many hours on an easy pitch, Pujara was looking forward to batting himself. He lasted only three balls, though, and was defeated by a fast, angled, ankle-height Mitchell Johnson delivery from round the stumps. Tendulkar and other team-mates consoled Pujara later, pointing out it was not his fault.

"I was really disappointed and it was really difficult to sleep," he says. "The wicket seemed very batting-friendly. So I thought things would be easy for me, especially as the bowlers were tired. And I was feeling well when I entered. The second ball I hit a four but somehow I got out."

He did not let the disappointment affect his fielding on the fourth day, impressing with his agility at silly point and short leg, giving India's spinners confidence and putting pressure on the Australians.

Pujara's hour of reckoning would arrive on the fifth morning, when he was told during the warm-ups that he would have to bat at one-down. "I said, 'It is perfect,'" he says. He agreed with the team management's strategy behind the move, which was that they did not want an inexperienced player down the order with India chasing in the fourth innings. "Raina and myself are good players but we are still inexperienced in Test cricket."

The confidence MS Dhoni showed in him despite it being only his second international innings was important to him. "The opportunity I got of batting at No. 3 was one of the best moments. It was a bit difficult - a challenging task," Pujara says. "As a debutant you want to score some runs in the first innings, to prove you are capable enough to play at the international level. And when you get out for a low score your confidence does go down. I told myself that I did not do anything wrong, so let me be positive. I have done enough hard work and I'm capable enough to play at international level. And when I got to play at three, that was my best chance."

On the fourth evening he read a spiritual book in Gujarati. One sentence made an impression: "If you have worked enough and if you trust God, then why do you worry about the result?" The book is one Pujara has had since he was 12 or 13. It was introduced to the family by his mother, Reena. "She did not force us to read it, she just left it there. One day I picked it up and started to read it. I get life-changing thoughts reading such stuff, as I believe in God," he says.

The second time he went in to bat, that sentence came to mind. "I said I wouldn't worry about the result. I have worked hard enough. I will try and be in the present. I will just bat," he says.

When Virender Sehwag got out on the fifth morning the crowd went mute for a minute, then sighed, seeing Pujara and not Rahul Dravid, the local hero, walk in. Did Pujara sense the disappointment of the fans? He begs to differ.

"I sensed they wanted me to score runs. They wanted India to win," he says. But he admits the first ball was difficult. The first-innings dismissal was playing on his mind. "I was a bit more nervous."

He took a risky single and was lucky Ricky Ponting missed hitting the stumps at the end to which Vijay was rushing. The next over, Pujara hit Johnson for a boundary, but the momentum only swung his way when Nathan Hauritz came on to bowl his first over of the day. Pujara charged him second ball to hit an off-drive that went straight, past the right of mid-off, to the boundary - his favourite shot from the innings. Eleven came off that over. "I thought then that I could dominate the bowlers," he says.

The fields set for Hauritz were easy for Pujara to manipulate. He had watched the offspinner closely in the first innings. "I had seen him bowl to the same fields during the first innings from round the wicket to Sachin paaji and Vijay. I don't want to say if it was the right field or wrong field, but I knew what field he was going to bowl to me," he says. By lunch Pujara was on 26, including four boundaries.

Pujara made his Test debut on October 9 - the day, in 2005, that his mother passed away, succumbing to cancer. "She was one of the most inspiring persons in my life and the one whom I loved the most," he says. "So I did not want to do anything sad. Wherever she is now, she would be happy."

For Pujara to play for India has not been a dream for him alone. It has been a family dream, one achieved through collective efforts. If there is one person happier than Pujara, it is his father.

"He is a modest person," Pujara says. "People are not aware of how much he has done for me. His contribution to me is tremendous. The satisfaction is, I have met his dream."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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