June 21, 2015

'My father made me a Test cricketer'

Interview by Haresh Pandya
The India batsman on the advantages of having his father coach him in cricket, and life

Cheteshwar Pujara on his father: "He was a very meticulous, disciplined and strict coach. He still is, when we discuss the technical side of the game in person or on the phone" © Getty Images

Cheteshwar Pujara comes from a cricket family. His grandfather Shivlal Pujara was a talented legspinner who played for the erstwhile princely state of Dhrangadhra. His father, Arvind, and uncle Bipin played Ranji Trophy cricket for Saurashtra.

His mother, Reena, succumbed to cancer when he was 17. From then on, his father - also his personal coach - focused chiefly on moulding his son into a top-notch cricketer. "To train Chintu and make him a world-class player was the only goal of my life after my wife died young," Pujara senior told this writer.

On Father's Day, here's Cheteshwar on their relationship, cricketing and otherwise.

What role has your father played in your life, and your professional career?
He has played a very big and crucial role. Being the only child, my parents loved me so much. I was particularly close to my mother, who always dreamed of seeing me play for India one day. While my father took care of my cricket, my mother ensured that I became a good human being. She was very religious and it was she who taught me the importance and value of prayer. She passed away in 2005. I was away from home, playing a match in Bhavnagar. You can imagine the state of my mind when I was returning after I got the news.

Do you think your father began to look after you more after your mother¹s death?
Yes, he had to play the role of my mother as well. We were the only two members in the family. He used to work in the railways at the time. He would get up early, do the necessary work in the kitchen, including preparing tea and breakfast, and ensure that I did not get late for school. He would also attend to his office work and take care of his wards, including me, at his coaching camp in the morning and evening.

Was he a coach or a father when he coached you?
He was a very meticulous, disciplined and strict coach. He still is, when we discuss the technical side of the game in person or on the phone. And when I was a junior cricketer, his approach towards me was no different than his approach towards other trainees. He never hesitated to scold me in front of others if I made a mistake. And he would not compliment or praise me more than a mere "well played" or "good shot" if I was doing well in the nets. He never made me or others feel that a father was teaching his only son. It was always Arvind Pujara, the neutral coach.

Is he a hard taskmaster as a coach?
Not any more. He has reduced his coaching work following a heart surgery. But in his prime, before I started playing Test cricket for the country, he tended to be a hard taskmaster. He never tired of teaching a particular point or two again and again till he was convinced that the lad had learnt it well. If someone kept making silly mistakes repeatedly, he would sometimes be a bit harsh. But he loved the game genuinely, even passionately, being a Ranji Trophy player himself. We knew that he was toiling selflessly for us. He was, after all, not a professional coach. It was his passion to pass on his knowledge to budding cricketers.

Did he tell you that you needed to go on and play Test cricket for India?
No, never. Both of us knew what was lying ahead after I started playing junior international cricket for the country; more so after I was playing and scoring consistently well. Any cricketer, talented or not, always wants to represent his or her country. He or she might not say so, nor do their parents, but the secret dream and desire are always there. So my father, though he never told me categorically that I should keep one eye on the India cap, was not an exception. He wanted me to wear the national colours.

What were his feelings when you were selected for your maiden Test, against Australia in Bangalore in 2010?
He was obviously very happy. He said that our combined efforts have finally been rewarded. He told me that I had to perform well to deserve the honour of playing for India. He wanted me to play a big innings on my Test debut.

What were his immediate reactions?
Well, he is not the kind who would show his emotions. You have to read his eyes and face to know what he is thinking or feeling. Anyway, I was away from home, so there was no question of getting a hug or a pat on the back. Of course, he called me and told me how happy he was. He was laughing, and you could sense the joy of a cricketer father whose son was selected to play for the country. He did not forget to tell me that my mother would have been the happiest if she were alive. Both of us got a bit emotional for a while.

What do you think is the best gift your father has given you?
I owe him a lot. Whatever I am today is all thanks to my father. He has worked very hard for me, sacrificed so much for me. I think the greatest gift for me from my father is that he has made me a cricketer. A Test cricketer. How many in India get to play for the country? I must be one of the luckiest few.

And what is the best gift that you have given him?
I think it has to be my playing for India in Test cricket. If you are asking about things that money can buy, let me tell you he is never keen about such stuff. He is a simple, unassuming person. Even the car he has begun driving is a small, simple, affordable, middle-class-family four-wheeler. He is so passionate about cricket that he hardly thinks about any other thing. I have often asked him if he wants any particular thing from me. But he always tells me that god has given him the greatest gift in me as his son. I know he is humbly proud about me. "Keep making big scores consistently. They are more than any other gift you can get me now," he keeps saying.

I know how happy he was to accompany me to England when I was playing county cricket there. He seldom or never comes to see me play, home or away, when I represent India. He loved the traditional English cricket culture. It was a happy change for him. It was also good for me to have someone close to me for company. When you play county cricket, you often feel lonely because there is usually no one from your country to accompany you, to share your happy and unhappy moments as a cricketer. Since my father is a former cricketer and my coach, it was even more beneficial. At the end of the day we would discuss my game and try to find out what went wrong and what were the right things I did.

Haresh Pandya is a freelance journalist specialising in cricket. He writes for the New York Times among other publications