As kids, Cheteshwar Pujara and Arpit Vasavada spent countless hours in each other's houses at Railways Colony in Rajkot. When not summoned to do homework, they'd train together, wanting to out-do each other with the bat. Arvind, Pujara senior, wanted them to channel their cricketing pursuits better and would have them alternate at the nets. Then over countless meals, he would drill into them the need to play "correct cricket" and to prove themselves on tough wickets outside Rajkot.
On Tuesday, Vasavada and Pujara exhibited those very virtues that were ingrained in them as young players wanting to make a name in Saurashtra. And in doing so, Saurashtra took another step closer to their Ranji Trophy dream, after three failed attempts.
Sure this final wasn't being played outside Rajkot - regarded widely as a paata wicket by casual cricket observers in the country - but Arvind, a keen watcher from the stands, would've been delighted because this was far from a typical Khanderi surface they grew up on. This could've well been a surface in Kalyani or Karnail Singh Stadium in Delhi, one that needed both batsmen to dig in and exhibit substance over style. And they did.
Pujara and Vasavada are the artisans of this team. There is a reason why the batting revolves around them. The more flamboyant artists were back in the pavilion. Sheldon Jackson looked a dream, but flattered to deceive. Vishwaraj Jadeja set himself up and was bowled through the gate. Such dismissals can potentially cause doubts for batsmen at the other end.
Vasavada soaked it all from the non-striker's end on Monday, even as Pujara battled throat infection, dizziness and fever. Pujara didn't come out for pre-match warm-ups and the usual batting routines on Tuesday to preserve his energies. But when it was time for him to use them, he did it the way he knows best. Bengal's fast bowlers kept trying to land the punches. Pujara had one answer: block.
Short ball on the body: block. Left-arm over from outside leg: pad away. Left-arm spin from around the wicket: step-out-smother. Bouncer from around the stumps: duck and weave. He had answers to all questions the bowlers tried to ask of him. The approach comes out of years of training and knowledge of the surface, where batsmen, especially those from outside, can be worn down by demons they can't see. In all fairness, conditions were tough and runs came in a trickle in the morning. It needed batsmen to fight and these two were prepared for the hard grind without the worry of being made to look ugly.
They came together at a crucial time on Tuesday morning, with Saurashtra resuming on a dicey 206 for 5. A few quick wickets and Bengal's hopes of restricting them below 300 would've been a real possibility. The onus was on them to see off the first hour at least. They added 25 in the first 15 overs of play, Pujara on occasions having mild discomfort against Shahbaz Ahmed's left-arm spin. Once, he was even referred to the TV umpire for an lbw decision but survived because of his intent to try and get to the pitch of the ball, which got him outside the nine-feet mark. And while the impact was in line, he was too far down the pitch.
Vasavada, at the other end, was equally watchful. Playing behind the line, rising with the bounce, weaving away from short balls, and resisting the temptation to sweep, a shot he plays very well. Most knocks of his generally has a good portion of runs square of the wicket through the sweep shot. But this was different. His determination to not play it as often seemingly evident.
From time to time, Pujara kept walking up to him in between overs, sometimes in between deliveries, at the first sign of him trying to do something outside the manual. But these instances were few in a dogged effort. The mantra was clear: 'There are no points for grace. Time and runs are our currency'.
There was a poignant moment when Vasavada got to his century, though. Vasavada was consumed by emotion as he roared towards the dressing room, whipped off his helmet and waved his bat animatedly. Pujara had started to run towards him to give a big hug but stopped, held himself back and allowed Vasavada to let his emotions flow. And once he regained his composure, Pujara walked up to him and gave him a quiet hug and handshake. It was the hug that validated Arvind's "tough runs outside Rajkot" philosophy.
All along, Pujara was hardly been deterred at his own scoring rate. There was not even an inkling of that word 'intent' being heard from any corner. He didn't get to his fifty until his 191st delivery, when he put away a long hop to the point boundary with all his might. It was sane batting, dour batting but a masterclass in putting mind over all else.
Then a release shot came off his 200th ball, a length delivery that had him take a big stride forward and disdainfully crash on the up for four through cover point. But such luxuries of letting instincts take over were very limited, and the beauty of his knock lay in his self-restraint, like Vasavada, fully aware that while he wasn't a 100%, he couldn't afford to not give anything but 100% for his team. In four innings in the final, Pujara had a best of 27. This was his space, his home and he wasn't going to pass another chance.
The partnership was worth 142; but its value far greater than many stands they've had on flatter wickets. Pujara only made 66, off 237 balls. Vasavada 106, before being stumped. But as stumps approached and shadows lengthened in Rajkot, they had more than done their bit to give Saurashtra a real shot at history.
On Holi, it wasn't quite a colourful batting display you'd expect from an Indian mainstay, but the bloodymindedness to get the job done showed his steely resolve and how much the old virtues of occupying the crease and bail the team out meant to him.