The next one will be very special, says Pujara on Twitter
Sidharth Monga of ESPN Cricinfo describes the batting of Cheteshwar Pujara as a throwback to eras gone by, not so much in technique – he is unusually bottom-handed for someone who pays his bills through Test cricket – as in temperament.
The Saurastrian will be playing his 50th test match at the SSC in Colombo.
It took him a little longer than expected to reach the milestone but Pujara has no hard feelings about that, describing it as a special game.
— cheteshwar pujara (@cheteshwar1) August 1, 2017
Let us go back in time a bit to look back at his journey full of perseverance.
Start of the career
Pujara scored a classy 72 in the 2nd innings of his 1st Test
Pujara was selected for the home Test series against Australia. He made his debut in the second and the last Test of the series on 9 October 2010 at Bangalore after both Gautam Gambhir and VVS Laxman were down with injuries sustained in the First Test.
In his first Test innings, Pujara scored four runs before getting out LBW to Mitchell Johnson on the third ball he faced.
In the second innings, Pujara was sent in at number three in place of his idol Rahul Dravid in a tactical change by captain MS Dhoni. The move worked like a charm, with India needing 207 runs to win, he made 72 before being bowled by Nathan Hauritz.
The Struggle with Injuries and Poor Form
His career ahead wsn’t a smooth ride as one would hope for. Soon after his debut, the classy batsman suffered a knee injury and had to undergo surgery. That was followed by an injury and a surgery on the other knee.
Pujara talks grimly about those times, “Getting injured was the most challenging time of my career. I was out for six months due to a knee injury and then again in 2011 when I was out for another six months. Overall, I wasn’t able to play for a year, which was really tough on me”.
Despite his injury lay-offs Pujara kept coming back to the team and kept getting hundreds. After top scoring for India on their tour to South Africa in 2013, it seemed Pujara has finally cemented his place in the 11 but wasn’t to be.
2014 saw him score a series of low scores against New Zealand, England and Australia.
He was developing a habit of getting starts and not capitalising on them which was very uncharacteristic of him. He is a man known for his love for batting long hours and scoring big runs.
Pujara talked to Rahul Dravid in this lean phase who assures him to keep playing the way he does. Recalling his interaction with Dravid, Pujara says, “There was nothing wrong with my technique because after that I spoke to Rahul (Dravid) Bhai, who just told me that you should continue the way you have been playing. I just trusted my game, worked hard on it and I was just one inning away”.
145 against Sri Lanka in 2015
That one inning which was long awaited by him came in Sri Lanka.
Pujara was then in the worst phase of his cricketing career and was eagerly waiting for a comeback. Dropped from the third Test against Australia in 2015 and then in the one-off Test against Bangladesh.
Finally, in the third Test match against Sri Lanka, Pujara made the comeback. Playing as a replacement opener, Pujara notched up an unbeaten 145. He had become the fourth Indian batsman to bat through Test innings, thereby putting his name alongside greats like Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid.
Not only did India win the match by 117 runs, but it was India’s first victory on Lankan soil since 1993.
Dropped for batting “slow” in Tests
It seemed Pujara has now cemented his place in the team for a long time now. Then, during the tour of West Indies Pujara was again dropped in favour of Rohit Sharma. His captain mincing no words while suggesting Rohit’s ability to score quick runs helped him get the nod over Pujara.
For a team man like Pujara that unceremonious drop was painful. He hadn’t scored a big hundred for a while but he was making useful contributions to the team and also Test Cricket is suppose to be a game for batting long hours.
Anil Kumble’s impact
When Kumble joined as the coach, Pujara found a backer and a mentor in him. Kumble differed with the captain when scoring at higher rates in tests.
Kumble played a big role in Pujara’s getting back in form. He worked on mental aspects of performing at the highest level, acknowledging some of his mistakes and identifying the strengths he has to stick irrespective of whether he is in or out of the team.
Pujara prospered in the 2016-17 season, has found strong support from the team management and became the most consistent run-getter in the home series against New Zealand, South Africa, England and Australia.
92 vs Australia in Bengaluru, in 2017
After a disappointing Test defeat on ugly track in Pune, India reached Bengaluru with the aim to level the series.
Pujara’s knock of 92 runs in the second innings and a crucial 118-run partnership with Ajinkya Rahane presented India the opportunity to square the series. His brilliant performance at Chinnaswamy even led skipper Kohli to term him as one of the best Test batsmen in India.
He was up against a difficult pitch and an Australian side that was spitting fire after taking an early lead in the series. Pujara responded with a match winning 92, an innings he rated higher than the double hundred he scored later in the series.
If one thing that defines Cheteshwar Pujara, it is perseverance. He has worked tirelessly in his bad phases and never given up.
Pujara is a cricketer who is never complacent and always looks for things he can do better the next time. At 30 he is now into a stable phase of his career and will only get better from here.
With just 34 runs more needed for 4000, Pujara will like to achieve that in his 50th Test and make it one to remember for a long time for India.