Moments after Saurashtra's dramatic victory over Karnataka, ecstatic team-mates mobbed Cheteshwar Pujara and raised him onto their shoulders. Pujara's wonderful 112 not out had guided Saurashtra into their second Ranji semi-final in a row.
"Tamhe yaad che maari baat? (you remember what I said?)," Shitanshu Kotak, with whom Pujara had shared a match-turning 163 partnership asked. Amid the delirium Pujara turned to his senior partner and replied, "Hats off to you."
The previous evening, chasing 325 for victory Saurashtra had lost two quick wickets and needed a further 310 on the final day. Kotak was positive. "He told me if we took some calculated risks Karnataka would not know whether to defend or attack," Pujara said later. "That is what happened. The way he batted - especially his subtle method of attacking - I had never seen him bat that way."
Pujara himself had done something for the first time in that game. Normally, by his admission, he thinks a lot about his batting, but that day he shut his mind. "I told myself, 'Let's just go there and bat and not worry about how much more we need and what day of the game it is.'" The aim was to settle down, get through the first session without losing a wicket and then see what happened. What unfolded over the six-odd hours was a perfectly acted script, with Pujara performing his role as a future star.
The knock against Karnataka has been a big stepping stone, he says. "The way I batted was really good for the team and for me as well. It was the best innings in my career because I was under pressure. We were underdogs and to come from behind and secure that victory was just amazing."
Pujara was the top-scorer in last year's Ranji Trophy; but critics pointed to his relatively poor, sub-60 strike-rate, a bit of an anachronism in modern cricket. This year, after Saurashtra's exit in the semi-finals, Pujara's strike-rate read 71.45, the highest among batsmen who had played all nine games till that stage. Pujara had hit back squarely at his critics. He finished this year's tournament with 906 runs, behind Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane in the run-scorers' list.
Though he failed to convert a good start in the semi-final, against Mumbai - he scored 39 as Saurashtra lost on first innings - Pujara remains in contention for a possible middle-order slot in the Test team. The likes of S Badrinath, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina may be ahead in the pecking order, based either on experience or just plain talent, but Pujara has in his favour his proven ability to make big runs.
At the start of the current season he thundered two triple-hundreds inside a week with ridiculous ease in the Under-22 tournament. Before anyone could dismiss those efforts as having come at a lesser level, Pujara forced journalists and TV stations to move their radar towards Rajkot, where he cobbled together another triple, this time against Orissa. That game put both Saurashtra and Pujara back on track after Gujarat had slapped an innings defeat on them in their season opener; Pujara made only eight in that game, including a second-innings duck.
After his unbeaten 302 against Orissa, where he stitched together an all-time record partnership of 520 for the fifth wicket with Ravindra Jadeja, Pujara also scored big run-a-ball hundreds in the next two games, against Punjab and Mumbai.
According to Pujara everything was fine last year, but he wanted to deal with the strike-rate issue. "This year I'm more positive and it started after I played in the Under-22 matches," he said when I met him on the eve of the quarter-final clash against Karnataka.
The turnaround came during his mammoth 386 in the Under-22 tournament, where, he says, having visualised what was required for the team's safety, he could then accelerate as needed. "We had to cross 368 to grab the vital lead for points. Once that was achieved I had the liberty to do what I wanted. On the final day I moved into one-day mode, and if there was a half-volley I would drive it." Pujara's vigil lasted more than 11 hours in all on that occasion.
All three triple-hundreds have come on his home ground, infamous for its flat pitches. "I agree the pitches in Rajkot are batting tracks," Pujara says. "Still, it is difficult to keep on scoring big runs. It tests your fitness as well - once you score 300 and come back and field for two more days, it is a difficult thing."
Pujara started playing when he was eight. His father, Arvind, would roll balls to him along the ground.
Arvind, who played a bit for Saurashtra in the 1970s, focused on having his son develop a strong base to his game. "From the initial stage my father wanted me to be a good batsman with proper technique," Pujara says.
Rajkot was not quite the ideal place to achieve this goal: Pujara did not have proper cricket gear in his formative years, and there were no turf pitches (still an issue). "If you want to become a good cricketer, somehow you have to manage with what you have - whatever the conditions are you utilise those," Pujara says.
Perhaps it is the resilience he had to show in the face of trying circumstances that has helped him develop large reserves of patience - on the field as well as in person. During our conversation Pujara never once rushed into his answers, giving every question due thought before saying just what he wanted to.
He retains that calm posture on the field too. At the crease he is still, moves his bat and feet without fuss, and there are no mutterings aimed at self-motivation. As a batsman Pujara cuts a neat figure. He maintains a relaxed, erect posture facing the bowler. When he plays his shots the bat-swing is minimal, and he finishes with a textbook follow-through. Mostly he plays his shots along the ground, leaning into the strokes rather than using the bottom hand. His front- and back-foot play is sound, and he can hit some gorgeous square, off and straight-drives, as well as pulls. If there is a weakness, it is perhaps his tendency to be tentative early on - as in the case of the late-cut that brought about his dismissal in the semi-final this year. The other, more prominent, deficiency is against the short ball. Ajit Agarkar pitched it short frequently at Chepauk and Pujara failed to get into the right position to deal with it
At the age of 12, playing for Saurashtra Under-14, Pujara scored 306 not out in nine hours against Baroda. It was his debut match, his first time out of Rajkot, first time away from his father's vigilant eyes. "That gave me confidence that if I continue the right way I can do something."
Over the years he gained experience at the zonal cricket academy and the NCA, learning to adapt and respond to various kinds of situations and pitches.
A few years ago Pujara endured the biggest loss of his life when his mother lost her battle with cancer. He put it behind him to emerge the top run-getter in the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2006, beating the likes of Rohit and up-and-coming Australian Moises Henriques, who too is vying for an international berth.
Amol Muzumdar, a domestic giant, with 100-plus Ranji games over more than a decade, has seen many potential talents, but he thinks Pujara is exceptional. "Based on the first couple of balls he plays, you know he has experience behind him - of having runs behind him. He knows how to score runs," Muzumdar says.
Pujara is aiming big, but he is in no hurry. "One thing I always keep in mind is: your standard should be always high." During the Under-19 World Cup, India's coach, Venkatesh Prasad, shared a valuable nugget of information. "He told me, 'If you score 100, you should ask if that century is helping the team first. And are you only good enough to score a 100 or are you good enough to score 150 in the same number of balls?'" That's one question Pujara seems to have laid to rest.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo