'It was my late mother's dream that I play Test cricket'
Cheteshwar Pujara, the new face in the Indian squad for the upcoming Test series against Australia, has all the right credentials to grace and brighten the star-studded Indian middle-order, says Haresh Pandya.
Cricket's first run-machine was produced on the Saurashtra peninsula in Gujarat in the late 19th century. More than 100 years later the region has released another that promises to be as effective and productive as the original.
Cheteshwar Pujara, the fast rising star from Saurashtra, can never approach the peerless Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji in class and charisma. There is no attempt here to compare the youngster with actually the incomparable Ranji, whose classical batsmanship bordered on the sublime.
But there are shades of Ranji in Cheteshawar when it comes to voracious appetite for runs and making them with a phenomenal degree of consistency.
In fact, so heavily has Cheteshawar been scoring and making bigger centuries that the erstwhile prince of Nawanagar would be proud of this prodigy from his own region. Certainly now, after the lad with oodles of talent, including fiery self-confidence, has at last been selected in the Indian team for the forthcoming Test series against Australia. It is a just reward for the quiet, unassuming Cheteshwar, who has always preferred to let his bat do the talking for him.
"I'm happy to have been selected in the Indian team to play against a strong side like Australia. I was confident of getting picked in the Test team at the right time. In fact, I was very confident of selection in the Indian team for the Test series against Australia after my fairly good performance in England and Australia in the recent past," he told Rediff.com.
"I'm actually delighted because it was my late mother's dream that I play for India in Test cricket. And I had promised her that I would fulfill her dream one day. Unfortunately, she is no longer in this world to share my feelings at this moment."
Image: Cheteshwar Pujara
Photographs: Bikash Mohapatra
'Chintu will fulfill our expectations'
One can understand Cheteshwar's emotions, for he was very close to his mother, Reena, who succumbed to cancer on October 6, 2005.
"My father taught me the ABC of cricket and has been my only coach so far. But my mother was always a fount of inspiration for me. While encouraging me to pursue cricket with total commitment and dedication, she ensured that I struck a right balance between sports and studies," said Cheteshwar.
Arvind Pujara, the "humbly proud" father of the gifted batsman who is often compared with Rahul Dravid for his classical technique, rock-like defence and steely resolve, had been "patiently waiting" for this moment for his only child.
"This is the proudest moment for me. I really don't know how to express my feelings. I'm simply delighted, excited and thrilled at the happy turn of events," a visibly emotional Arvind, a former Ranji Trophy cricketer from Saurashtra, told Rediff.com.
"Chintu [Cheteshwar's nickname] has worked really hard at his game and emerged and established himself as one of the most talented young batsmen in the country. I don't say this because he is my son. I say this as someone who has played and watched enough first-class cricket. I've coached him since his childhood and I know what he is capable of as a batsman. I've no doubt that Chintu will fulfill our expectations and justify the selectors' confidence in him."
Indeed, Cheteshwar has all the right credentials to grace and brighten the Indian middle-order studded with some diamonds. Though he is neither flamboyant nor destructive when armed with the willow, he is certainly incapable of ever being dull despite playing marathon innings times without number. On the contrary, when his talent is channeled into the right direction, no true cricket cognoscente would like to go for an early tea or burrow into the crossword.
"Chintu has happily transformed himself into an all-cricket, all-wicket and all-weather batsman. He may not be brutally aggressive, but bowl him a loose delivery and he is bound to punish you.
"A good batsman is one who can adapt himself and his game to the nature of cricket, the prevailing situation and the needs of his team. The demands of one-day and Twenty-20 cricket are such that he is often seen hitting big sixes as well. His whole approach to cricket is very positive. And it reflects best when he is at the wicket and goes for his compact shots with a fair degree of regularity. I'm sure Chintu will be an asset to Team India for years to come," said his uncle and former Saurashtra wicketkeeper Bipin Pujara.
Image: Cheteshwar Pujara bats for Kolkata Knight Riders during the IPL
Prolific scorer since the age of eight
Cheteshwar's opponents both envy and fear the very virtues that have become synonymous with him -- technical excellence, great powers of concentration, supreme confidence, Promethean determination and, of course, insatiable hunger for runs. He may be lacking the tangible spark of a genius, but he is one hell of a batsman with a marvellous eye, supple wrists and nimble footwork.
He is perfectly poised and his judgment, timing and placement are almost flawless. He has a rich repertoire of shots and is fond of executing them. He always gives the impression of being in the right position to hit you front foot or back. To tell the truth, he is simply awesome off the backfoot and the silkiness of his strokes in the off, in particular, is a sight for connoisseurs.
Blessed as he is with such rare skills, it is no wonder that Cheteshwar has been a very prolific scorer since he began wielding the willow at the age of eight. He offered glimpses of his undoubted potential and ability to plunder runs when he scored 138 against Mumbai and 306 not out versus Baroda in the West Zone Under-14 tournament in 2000-01.
Born (January 25, 1988) and brought up in Rajkot, Cheteshwar hails from a cricketing family. This probably explains why he is unlike many other young practitioners of the willow game.
Besides his father and uncle, his grandfather, Shivlal Pujara, was also a famous cricketer in the good old days. A feared leggie and a towering figure in the star-studded team of the erstwhile Dhrangadhra state, Shivlal later worked for an insurance company in Mumbai, where he was a key player in the Insurance Shield.
Like his grandfather, Cheteshwar is also a good leg-spinner with a somewhat curious action. In fact, he started playing cricket as a leggie. But it did not take his father long to discover that he was a better batsman. So he advised him to concentrate on batting. The results are there for all to see.
The kind of interest and expectations Cheteshwar has generated with his exciting talents and matching achievements are comparable to those aroused by Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar before they donned India colours.
The young man has already done more than enough and continues to do so. His talents and exploits merit a loftier stage and fitting company. Irrespective of his age, he is an accomplished batsman -- too precious a gem to be wasted in domestic cricket.
Thankfully, the national selectors have recognised his genius at the most opportune time.
Image: Cheteshwar Pujara in the nets
Photographs: Haresh Pandya