Exclusive | Silence please, Cheteshwar Pujara at the nets
The activity-level on the WhatsApp group of players from Arvind Pujara’s nets is worth checking on the day the coach’s son, Cheteshwar Pujara, is batting in Test matches. If nervous excitement can be caught on a phone screen, then this is it: the word ‘typing…’ flashing in green against each contact, as if everyone on the group is playing fastest fingers first, as Pujara closes in on a century. When he hits the three-figure mark, the group erupts—ping! ping! ping!—messages flood through. But they have no words, just a figure, repeated in each message, 100, 100,100,100.
One of their own has hit a Test century; this group has grown up together and learnt its game together. It’s worth the incantation.
There’s pride, but there’s also a more pragmatic reason for the celebration—their famously disciplinarian coach will be in a lighter mood at practice on the day Pujara hits a ton.
Arvindbhai, Pujara’s father and coach, is old-school; for him training is worship. His students talk of the almost complete lack of chatter at the nets, for example, or how they freeze when Arvind looks at them with disapproval. But if Pujara has an off-day for India, though, things can get much harder.
“Each of us posts just one number— 100—when Pujubhai reaches his century,” says 24-year-old Samarth Vyas, a batting all-rounder who picked up the game at Arvind’s centre and now plays for the local Railways team.
“It also means today the atmosphere will be good at the practice. If he hasn’t done well, the mood changes accordingly.”
For the past one year, the mood has been consistently upbeat at these grounds on the rural outskirts of Rajkot.
Pujara has been on a century-hitting spree. This January, the 31-year-old who comes in at No 3 for India, flattened the Australian bowling attack in Australia. He started with a 123 on the opening day of the Adelaide Test and finished with an epic 193 at Sydney. In between, there was a 106 in the first innings of the Melbourne Test, and a total of 521 runs in four Tests at an average of 74.42. No one scored more from either team, and even the Australians made their admiration for him public.
“I have never seen a batsman watch the ball as closely as he does, and that includes Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid,” Australia coach Justin Langer said after the series. “And we have to keep getting better just like him, all our batsmen and bowlers.”
Pujara had made his debut as a Test player way back in 2010, and his mass of runs at the domestic level, achieved through an orthodox, almost stolid style of batting, meant he was being seen as Dravid’s long term replacement. Nine years down the line, that comparison seems to have been well founded.
Pujara has trained under the unflinching gaze of his father since he picked up the game as a nine-year-old, and over the years the two have spent hours dissecting his game, often interrupting practice mid-session to discuss a point.
Pujara says that’s become rarer. Since the Australia series, his father, he says, has found a sense of peace that his best student is now his own man. Yet, as the Indian ODI team was on its World Cup campaign, Pujara was doing what he has always done. Stayed at home and worked with his father, in the cricketing backwater of Rajkot, gearing up for the beginning of the inaugural World Test Championship cycle, which will kick off with the first of two Tests against West Indies this month.
“My personal life is still the same,” Pujara says.
But some things have changed. There is more recognition now, a bit more fan-following for the low-key batsman.
“Because the amount of runs I have scored and the performance that was there in the Australia series, people have understood that this player is important for the Indian team and has done something for the Indian team,” Pujara says. “This is where people came to know what I am capable of or what I could contribute to the team’s success, so many people have started following me.”
Watching Pujara bat is to watch a monk in meditation. His power is not expressed in any one shot, or any one innings. His brilliance is cumulative in nature. It is measured in time—in prolonged periods of grind, or defensive play to see through a difficult situation and emerge unscathed. If his captain Virat Kohli dazzles with aggression and strokeplay, Pujara’s skills are more subtle—he blunts the opposition’s attack, he grows as the game progresses, he doesn’t get sucked into making a mistake. For the other team, it is a weary, losing battle against his unwavering concentration.
Their coaching manual was simple, says Vyas. “Play with the same intensity from the first ball to the last ball. Whether it is Sachin Tendulkar or Pujara, it will take only one ball to get out. He always knew, for cricketers from our nets, there’s not going to be any help from anyone. Apne runs or wickets ke dum pe hi khelna hai (we have to play on the credit of our runs and wickets).”
With this embedded in his mind, Pujara remains always hungry to play.
“He is who he is, even if he had a terrible series or if he has had a very good series,” says his wife Puja. “He won’t change his routine, or his practice pattern.”
When Pujara came back from the historic triumph in Australia, he didn’t spend any time resting or celebrating. Even as he was chiselling out his 193 in the final Test, he was making plans so that he could reach India in time to turn out for Saurashtra for the Ranji Trophy quarterfinals.
“He decided he is going to play the Ranji game come what may,” Puja says. “In the one-and-half days he was in Rajkot, he even made sure he attended a net session before he went to play the game.”
This hunger to keep playing comes into even sharper relief considering that India’s first Test series victory in Australia in 76 years came at the end of a tough away cycle which started with a difficult series loss in South Africa, moved to England for more hardships, before finally finishing on a high in Australia.
Pujara struggled with the team in South Africa; he began to turn things around in England, before exploding into his own in Australia.
“It makes a lot of difference (to your confidence), because as a player you know you are capable of big things,” Pujara says.
“But when you start achieving these things, you know that things which you have worked for are paying off now. So you start believing in your preparation, in your ability, in yourself. You know you are on the right track and you have to continue.”
Finally one of the boys
If Australia was Pujara discovering his belief in his own abilities, the innings that began the change was in England, in the fourth Test in Southampton. India had lost the first two Tests, and won the third, and Pujara had struggled for runs—he didn’t play the first Test. The pressure, Pujara says, was “unbearable” as he went to play the match.
“The reason was also that in 2014, I had an average tour of England,” he says. “In the innings at Southampton, at one stage we were 160 odd for seven and I was batting around 60, and at that stage I was thinking to get a (team) total of 200 will be difficult. There was no thought of a hundred. I just told myself, since I am batting well I will take my chances. Ultimately, I got to my hundred and team’s total was 250 which was a good score on that pitch.”
In the ultra-competitive atmosphere of the Indian cricket team, with Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri’s emphasis on winning and strike rates, Pujara had had a difficult time settling down. With this innings, he finally found his place in the dressing room.
“It was a different vibe altogether (in the dressing room after the innings),” he says. “My teammates really appreciated my innings. Some walked up to me and said, ‘yes, this is what we look up to’, that Pujara can play this kind of an innings.
“I always knew I am capable of these things, it was just that at the international level, people had never seen this part of my game.”
The hardest thing to deal with in his cricketing career, Pujara says, was being dropped from the Indian team. He had faced that in Australia in 2014, when he was dropped midway through the tour.
“It does hit you,” he says. “It is disappointing not to be part of the team, after you have scored so many runs and sometimes if you are going through a tough time, it is the most important time to be backed. But if you are dropped, you accept that.”
But the hardships on the field are nothing compared to what life deals you. Pujara knows this well. He lost his mother to cancer when he was 17. Early on in his international career he needed surgeries to both knees. While he was on crutches and going through recovery, his father suffered a cardiac arrest.
The 150 kmph bouncers of Mitchell Starc holds no fear for him.
“When I lost my mom, it was one the toughest times in our family,” he says. “Especially for my father. I moved back to the game, I had someone to talk to, but my father had so many things to look after on his own. The good thing was I started progressing in my career and we still had that goal in our life to work towards.”
Then came the first injury, and he was out for six months.
“Initially I was really sad,” Pujara says. “I was crying that I wouldn’t be able to play for six months, which is a long time. Then I was back on track, but within a year another injury happened, on my right knee. In between my father had to undergo a bypass surgery. He felt that he was putting extra burden on me but for me he was the most important. I told him, once both of us are fit, then we will always move forward.
“I have seen the worst in my life, so whatever bad happens in my life it is just an obstacle,” Pujara says. “It is not a major obstacle, it’s just another obstacle.”
The Pujara’s cricket ground is a sprawling six-acre field with rows and rows of pitches—turf, astroturf, and cement—just five kilometres from the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) stadium.
It needed a lot of work to get this facility going.
“After I retired from the Railways, we were left with no ground to train,” Arvind says. “Then we came along this plot of land. It needed four years to build.”
Arvind religiously makes the half-hour trip from his home in the city to the ground every day. For the local cricketers, he has arranged free transport to and from the grounds to their homes.
When in town, Pujara can be found here.
“Even if I have practised with the Ranji team at the SCA Stadium, I drive down here after that to train with the boys. I know it will help the academy boys,” he says. “We don’t advertise at all because we want to keep it free of cost.”
It is a windy, overcast July day at the grounds.
Rajkot is feeling the effects of a cyclonic system, (it ultimately passed by without incident), and the Pujara Academy cricketers talk about how this could stand in for a breezy New Zealand ground, where you struggle to keep your eyes open and your feet balanced.
As Pujara begins his session, the only sound is of the howling of the wind and pounding of the bowler’s feet as he approaches the crease, and then the crack of bat hitting ball. Arvind’s nets, his way. No talk.
“It is your profession, one has to be serious about it,” Pujara says after he is done.
“When I am batting here, I do specific batting drills. Today I was batting in general. It was extremely windy, these weren’t easy conditions to concentrate.”
There are some tweaks to his technique since the England series and they are visible in the practice session. Earlier, he would go heavy on the square cut and his leg side play. Now, the drives flow with more ease. But his core strength remains the same: watching the ball right on to the blade, a trait he shares with great players.
“For me, discipline is of two aspects,” Pujara’s father says. “One is discipline of skill, that is, you play on the merit of the ball. And second, discipline of practice, which has to be continuous and at the right time.”
Pujara says that things are not always smooth between him and his father-as-coach.
“Because when it comes to this game there are so many different ways of playing this game,” Pujara says. “Sometimes I want to do something and he may want me to do something differently, so we have an argument.”
But ultimately, he says, they work towards an understanding, since they are moving towards the same goal.
“When something starts clicking when we are practicing, then he will also agree and I will also agree that this is what we have to stick to,” Pujara says. “This has been a journey and a journey is not complete without all these things. If it is a smooth ride, then we will not progress. Once you start questioning each other, you will find the best solution.”
Pujara is looking forward to the newly formed Test championship, patiently building himself for it, because he believes that the Indian team is heading towards a period of great success in the longest format of the game.
“Now, as a batting unit we are progressing, everyone is taking responsibility, and we will get to the next level very soon,” he says. “If we have to win the Test championship, we have to take a lot of responsibility.”
For his part, that responsibility is shared between him and his father, wordlessly following a routine they have followed ever since he was a boy. The only sounds are the thud of the bowler’s run up, and the crack of bat hitting ball, on a pitch that looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere.