County runs get Cheteshwar Pujara country recall

The IPL snub proved to be a blessing for Cheteshwar Pujara. While the world was busy watching the world’s most popular T20 tournament, Pujara, in his Sussex whites, was entertaining the English county faithfuls.

In those idyllic surroundings, he has scored a couple of double tons and two hundreds – 170*, 203, 109, 201* – in seven inning games at an average of 143. This mountain of runs helped Pujara make a return to the Test squad.

His Sussex team mate and Pakistan wicket-keeper Mohammad Rizwan had given a hint about Pujara’s drive and focus during his short stint.

“He is a very nice person and his concentration and focus are unreal … In my life, the player with the highest levels of concentration and focus I have seen is Younis bhai. So No. 1 is Younis bhai. After that, it was Fawad Alam but now Pujara is No. 2 and Fawad Alam No. 3,” said the man who had a hundred run partnership with Pujara.

Pujara’s latest run-spree bumped his first-class double hundred count to 15, giving him entry into the Top 10 of a list that has Bradman at the top. The elite club has mostly gentlemen from the black and white era with WG Grace two places behind India’s Test specialist.

Pujara’s consistency in reaching 200-plus scores is only second to Bradman’s. His double hundreds, at an average, show up after 25 first-class innings. Cricket’s undisputed GOAT, The Don, needed around 9 innings.

Among the active cricketers, Pujara is head and shoulders above his contemporaries. On the most first-class 200 list, Virat is second with 7, with Rohit Sharma (5) and Kane Williamson (5) further down the order – all staring up at the impossibility of dethroning the man with the unquenchable thirst for runs.

However, the most storied shake-up of this double hundred list is Pujara’s leap over Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, Ranji to the world. It’s a charming tale featuring the pioneer who gave Indian batting a template and the last of the kind holding on to those century-old batting principles.

Much before Bollywood woke-up to Brighton – stars like Deepika Padukone, Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, Jacqueline Fernandez, have danced at Sussex’s vibrant town with eight-mile long beach, Palace Pier and bright painted timber huts – India’s cricketing royalty were a big draw here. Ranji was followed by Tiger Pataudi, both larger than life cricketers placing India on cricket’s world map.
Continuing the India-Sussex tradition, Pujara is getting his name on English honour boards and also triggering Ranji references.

Their proximity on the list – Rajkot-born Pujara 9th, Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar 10th – mirrors their geographical closeness. Born more than a century apart, the two, one royalty and the other working class, had cricket thrust upon them. Cricket for them didn’t prove to be some forced compulsion, it turned out to be a life-long pursuit.

Like all princes in the days of Raj, Ranji went to the school established for the young royals – Rajkot’s Rajkumar College. It was an institute that imparted English education and cricket lessons. British coaches were shipped in to teach the heirs of princely states the nuance of the game, the right conduct on the field and dressing room decorum.

In India for a long haul, the colonists were using the game to replace the native culture with the British way of life. Their liasoning with the locals would be smooth and profitable if they spoke a common language and similar sensibilities. Cricket was a tool of assimilation.

Ranji, at least on the pitch, proved to be a rebel. Like the Englishmen, he didn’t offer a straight bat to the ball aimed at him. As Neville Cardus wrote, as only he can: “The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”

Early in his life Pujara too got a cricket bat in his hand, and that would be his guiding light and walking stick for life. Unlike Ranji, the son of a Railway employee Pujara wasn’t privileged. He had his father, Arvind, as the coach, who had his own version of the MCC coaching manual. But like the British coaches who trained Ranji, Arvind too insisted that his son played the game the way it should be.
Despite being born in the same city where Ranji got his schooling, Pujara couldn’t even dream of going to the Raj Kumar college. It wasn’t something his father could afford. With palaces starting to get transformed into boutique hotels, Raj Kumar College would be the preferred education institute of the region’s well-heeled elite.

None of Pujara’s schools – Sadguru Bal Mandir, Lal Bahadur Shastri Primary School, Virani High School, Ramesh Bhai Chhaya Boys School – could come close to Raj Kumar College’s grandeur. Only one had a rudimentary play field. The one where Pujara spent his final academic years, was bang in the middle of a busy market, not far from the Fire Brigade building and one stinky naala. It was an obscure building with a small courtyard being its only open space.

What attracted the city’s best talent there was a cricket-crazy principal. “Since most young players would be busy playing tournaments, they would have attendance issues. At the end of the term, the principal and the PE teacher would magically show that the children had regularly attended school,” says Sr Pujara.

That basic perk was the reason the school with no cricket ground or a coaching programme went on to win the state inter-school tournament. Legend has it that Pujara won most games single-handedly.

With this basic support system, nowhere near the scale of Raj Kumar College or the Nawanagar Palace treasury, Pujara developed a game that took him to Ranji heights.

As if there was something in the air that remained suspended since the days of the Raj, Pujara, like Ranji, would develop a trait to work the straight ball on the pads to the leg side. With time, the famous Ranji glance would evolve. The basic wrist work remained the same but the batsmen could now maneuver the ball in a bigger arc. Pujara could work the ball from mid-on to fine-leg, the degree of his wrist tweak deciding the angle the ball would take.

The whip-cracking glance would be in the quiver of most sub-continent batsmen but Pujara had something extra. He had also retained in him cricket’s ancient wisdom. He could play time, a fast-disappearing trait that was no longer taught at cricket camps. These days during summer vacations, when the coaching centres get unusually flooded with impressionable kids, it’s IPL that is fresh on their minds. Playing time was so boring, leaving the ball was sacrilege, having more than one shot for a ball was a passport to franchise trials.

Despite his IPL misadventure, Pujara’s batting remained pristine. His 15 double hundreds point to an important aspect of his batting. He is no Sehwag. He can’t race to a 200 in no time. Pujara needs to pace his innings, wait for the loose ball, see through deadly spells and break the resolve of the opposition team.

Pujara knows the art of survival, he can bide his time, be the predator with an unblinking focus on his prey’s one moment of weakness or tiredness. Only those who can treat dropped catches, play-and-miss blips as minor mishaps and move on, can climb to Mt 200, 15 times. And the life lessons learnt during those walkathons that programme a batsman to go on a run-binge after getting dropped from the national team.

Maybe, these are the qualities that saw selectors recall him to the Indian team. His class was never in doubt but his form had put a question mark over his Test career. But those double hundred showed that Pujara had got his rhythm back. With not many among India’s young batsmen blessed with Test temperament, the selectors must have realised that there can’t be a like-for-like replacement for Pujara.

India’s Test squad: Rohit Sharma (Captain), KL Rahul (vice-captain) Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, Shreyas Iyer, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rishabh Pant (wk), KS Bharat (wk), Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Mohd Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohd Siraj, Umesh Yadav, Prasidh Krishna

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