Starting off with a bang
With his solid temperament, Pujara has injected confidence in the Indian team
In sports, you will hear such tales a lot, but they still retain their charm because talent fades into insignificance without hard work. The success Pujara enjoys now comes after fusing together those two elements to a nicety. His journey to the top started from the maidans of Mumbai as a starry-eyed cricketer fed on the great deeds of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar.
It would then make for little surprise that the young Pujara too wanted to join the same league, and fortunately he found support from all around him, most importantly from his father Arvind Pujara.
But then a lot of other names such as former India pace bowler Karsan Ghavri, who identified the talent and desire of Pujara and advised him to stick with cricket, and Ravi Thakkar, former Mumbai left-arm spinner, who drafted Pujara into his Matunga-based club, prop up as the story progresses -- each playing small yet valuable part.
Spending his formative years on the contrasting pitches of Rajkot -- slow and low -- and Mumbai -- always with some juice for bowlers -- has helped Pujara shape a very adaptive game. His double hundred at Ahmedabad came on a familiar pitch, the type he has scored tons of runs for Saurashtra in the domestic matches.
But the Wankhede stadium track offered a different challenge. The ball turned and kicked up from the first session itself on the opening day of the second Test, and Pujara’s response made for an interesting viewing. There he was ready to leave the safe environs of the crease, and meet the ball at the point of spin, nullifying the effects of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
But Pujara never used the lofted shot, but relied on drives and solid blocks to ward the danger away. It was quite a daring step, considering a master against spin like Tendulkar tried to remain at the crease to play the English spinners. Pujara’s third hundred was also a statement of his confidence, conviction to back his technique and abilities.
Pujara’s skill while batting on a tough pitch didn’t surprise Lalchand Rajput, who coached India ‘A’ during the recent West Indies tour. “I would say that Pujara is one of the best players we have right now on a difficult pitch.
In the West Indies, we had to play on a few of that nature in Barbados and St Lucia, and Pujara was very comfortable on those pitches. He has technique and patience to play on those kind of wickets,” Rajput says.
“The partnership he had with Shami Ahmed at Bridgetown, where they added some 70 runs to guide us to a thrilling win was an example of his character, particularly under pressure situations,” Rajput adds.
Dring that trip to the Caribbean, Pujara made 252 runs from three unofficial ‘Tests’ at 50.40 to emerge the top-scorer for India ‘A’ ahead of the likes of Ajinkya Rahane, Manoj Tiwary and Wriddhiman Saha. The performance convinced selectors that Pujara was ready to play the Test matches, and drafted into the team after the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
The first Test against New Zealand at Hyderabad was Pujara’s first in well over a year. Despite proving his fitness and run-making ability at various matches after a knee injury there was an element of suspicion -- how effectively he can tackle top class bowlers in all conditions, something his predecessor did to perfection for nearly two decades.
The Wankhede pitch wasn’t anything close to the one Dravid had to negate in Jamaica in 2006, but Pujara’s hundred in Mumbai offered a valuable peek into his abilities to play on tough tracks, an assurance that Pujara is ready for sterner assays in the coming days. R Ashwin, who watched Pujara’s innings from close quarters, was impressed to no extent. “He has a got a great temperament. Pujara’s was a brilliant knock, and the amount of trust he put on his defence is brilliant, and he has the concentration to bat for long periods,” said Ashwin.
This is just the beginning for Pujara. He will have to face much sterner tests at home and away; there will inevitably a phase where he will struggle for runs, but in the last few weeks Pujara showed his readiness to enter and stay in the cauldron of international cricket. Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni agreed.
“Pujara’s very calm and cool. He knows his role. He accepts responsibility, which is very important,” said Dhoni, who then revealed an instance to underscore Pujara’s commitment.
“After scoring 200-odd runs, he was not shy to stand at short-leg. He’s among our best fielders in that position, close in. It would have been easy for him to say he was not feeling 100 per cent to stand at short-leg, but he was there. He has the right temperament,” said Dhoni.
The Saurashtra lad has already dealt with, perhaps, the toughest part of a young cricketer’s career -- getting compared with a legend, and in his case with Dravid. He brushes away the comparisons in a typically modest fashion, “You can’t replace players like Rahul bhai, and I have not seen myself as a replacement for anyone.”
More than the technical competence, Pujara’s modesty and willingness to stay at present will come handy for him in his journey onwards that seems destined take him to longer destinations. It will be the finest reward for those who harnessed his talent.