The second day of Navratri in the year 2005 was one Cheteshwar Pujara will never forget, for as long as he lives. Though the festive season had begun, the atmosphere in the Pujara household in Rajkot was sombre, and the mood was black, for it was the day Rinaben, Cheteshwar’s mother, lost her battle with cancer.
Close to his mother, the 17-year-old Cheteshwar was devastated, but his father, Arvind, himself a cricketer who has represented Saurashtra in Ranji Trophy, pushed the youngster to do what he did best. Five days after his mother’s demise, Cheteshwar was batting for Saurashtra in an under-19 tournament. In only the third match he played then, Cheteshwar scored a century.
While nothing can erase the painful memory Cheteshwar will associate with October 9, the date has now been made bittersweet for him, as it was on the same day, five years later, that he realised his dream of playing for India.
But the beginnings were not entirely auspicious as his first knock in an India shirt lasted all of three balls, a skidding delivery from Mitchell Johnson keeping low and striking pad, prompting the umpire to adjudge Cheteshwar lbw even though the ball might have missed leg stump.
While the missed opportunity played on his mind - and in the fickle world of Indian cricket and selection, players sometimes wait years for a chance only to be discarded after a solitary failure - Mahendra Singh Dhoni changed the script.
With Virender Sehwag falling early in India’s run chase, Dhoni sent Cheteshwar out at No. 3, holding the experience of Rahul Dravid back, in case it was needed in a tight situation. The response from the debutant, however, was scarcely believable.
Known for his dour occupation of the crease in domestic cricket, Cheteshwar showed that there was more to his batting. An uncluttered mind free from the scars of repeated losses to Australia helped him attack, and the strokes that flowed from his blade made bystanders of fielders.
The 72 Cheteshwar scored powered India’s run chase, and the batsman explained how he kept his cool. “Obviously, I was a bit nervous,” said Cheteshwar after the game. “I told myself I wanted to be in the present. I had practiced enough and if I looked at each and every ball, each and every over, then there is no pressure.”
It certainly helped Cheteshwar that the man at the other end was Sachin Tendulkar, whose cricket career is almost as long as Cheteshwar’s existence on this planet. “Tendulkar told me ‘you might be nervous, just enjoy it, don’t try and overcome it, it will go away when you spend a few minutes at the crease’.”
Chintu, as Cheteshwar is known to his friends and family, had made a name for himself on the biggest stage in cricket. At a time when most young cricketers worship fast cars, multi-crore contracts and the assorted trappings of fame, an unassuming young man from a cricketing backwater made the grade.
The soft-spoken Cheteshwar, his father assures us, still does puja every day, offering prayers to his favourite deity. On Wednesday, some of those prayers were answered.