The first time I bowled competitively to Cheteshwar Pujara was in the Buchi Babu Invitational Tournament in 2008-09. I took five wickets but he scored a hundred.
The first thing about him was how quick he was on his feet. The moment you tossed it up a little, he'd step out and get to the pitch of the ball. He wouldn't hit it in the air. If he wanted to make runs - he'd still hit it along the ground, but ferociously. Puji is one of the greatest at playing percentages against spin.
During all these years of knowing him, I have learnt that his game is just an extension of his personality. And his personality is stubborn. You just can't win an argument with him. He never concedes a point. I enjoy seeing his stubborn side, so I try to lead him into arguments while others around say, "Ash, you know you are not going to win."
M Vijay, according to me the greatest opener for India outside of Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag, and Puji are quite similar in that they haven't been celebrated enough. They also had some of the most hilarious arguments. They used to do the most difficult job in Test cricket - play out the new ball in testing conditions, as we tend to need to do whenever we go abroad - so it is par for the course to have a few eccentricities emerge from that kind of partnership.
They could spend a whole session break arguing over a call that Puji wouldn't have responded to. Vijay would try to get others to back him, but Puji would stay firm and say, "There was no run." You can get witnesses and evidence and attorneys, but Puji never changes his mind. Nor does he get frustrated with these debates.
Pat Cummins bowls good ball after good ball, changing the angles, trying a bouncer, trying a sucker ball, but all he gets from Puji is the leave or the dead defence. Actually I don't recall thinking Puji had a great defence when I first saw him, but his stubbornness is such that he has broken down the best of the attacks with his defence.
Most batters add to their game when they are successful or cut out some elements when they are failing, but Puji keeps trusting his method. You can't convince him to change. I used to use a Tamil nickname for him with Shankar Basu, our previous trainer: Mirugam, the beast. Just like a beast focuses single-mindedly on its prey, Puji focuses on batting.
One of the arguments I lost to Mirugam was in trying to get him to expand his game. I always believed he could have been an excellent one-day batter. He had the natural ability to rotate the strike in the middle overs.
With all the knowledge he has acquired over the years, I felt he could have been a more explosive batter, but I can also understand his challenges. He has had two career-threatening injuries, he has been in and out of the only format he plays, so I can see why it is not easy to veer away from what he knows the best.
Especially considering what he knows made him a batter spinners found impossible to bowl to between 2012 and 2017. You pushed it up slightly and he would step out, but never be beaten in the flight. If you bowled a fraction flat, he would go back and whack you through the off side.
There was an inevitability to Puji's runs in this period. Even on the green top at the SSC in 2015. I felt bad for him that he didn't play the first two Tests because I really rated him. He had played beautifully in Australia too. The moment we knew he was playing the series decider, I told Basu: the Mirugam is hungry and he will feast. It was written all over that match that Puji would score a hundred. That match happened just so he could score that hundred.
"I have not batted a lot with Puji, but we have had a few crucial partnerships. I regret not having been at the other end when he cut loose against the Australian attack in Adelaide "
I have seen a lot of criticism that Puji doesn't move the game forward and that there is no scoreboard pressure on the bowlers when he gets out, and how that contributes to the dismissal of the new batters. By the same token, those critics should attribute hundreds made by other batters to Puji when he plays out the new ball and leaves behind tired bowlers.
We joke that Puji's dad, Arvind, didn't teach him the whole sport of cricket. He has taught him this: there is a round object, it is red in colour, people will hurl it at you, and you have to hit it. Hit it in a way that the ball doesn't fall far from your feet. The other aspects of the sport he doesn't even see as cricket. He just sucks all the energy out of the bowlers. I am waiting for the day when someone runs in and bowls fast and Puji defends it so softly that the bat falls out of his hand upon impact.
When Vikram Rathour and I watch Puji bat, Vikram paaji, for some reason, is always optimistic Puji will hit in the air. He tries to manifest it, but Puji never yields. I tell him if he hits in the air, Puji's dad won't let him come back home. In fact, we joke that his house doesn't have a lock combination. His dad and his wife throw a few balls at him, and he has to knock them back along the ground. Only then is he allowed in. I am sure by now Aditi, his daughter, is also throwing balls at him.
I have not batted a lot with Puji, but we have had a few crucial partnerships. I regret not having been at the other end when he cut loose against the Australian attack in Adelaide, but then again, I doubt he will take risks like that as long as even a half-decent batter is at the other end.
Not that Puji doesn't think of runs. His long-term planning is way ahead of anyone else. We see he stays in the moment and defends, but in his mind when he is defending Dale Steyn in the first session, he has already planned for JP Duminy after tea. He doesn't know what score he'll be on at tea, but he knows he will get at least one or two overs from Duminy and he knows he will go right of midwicket once, left of midwicket once, and he'll cut him once. So he has 12 runs parked there when you think Steyn is building pressure.
We have many other complimentary jokes about Puji but it is no joke for someone with two surgically repaired knees to play for 12 years and get to 100 Tests in a country as full of competition and talent as India.
As a spinner who needs runs to play with and an important lower-order batter, I am a nervous watcher when we are batting. The one time I do take a coffee break or a loo break is when Puji is batting because I know when I come back, Puji will still be doing his thing.
In your 100th Test and beyond, Puji, my friend, my leg-slip and backward short-leg ally, the single-minded Mirugam, I will be thankful for the value you bring to the team, and the peace and calm to the dressing room.