Cheteshwar Pujara: The shield that protected India from fiery Aussie pace
- India vs Australia: Arvind Pujara feared for son as he bore painful body blows to blunt bowlers, setting up the Gabba victory
Immediately after India’s historic and breathtaking win in the fourth and final Test in Brisbane, Arvind Pujara called his son Cheteshwar for a brief chat. “The only thing I asked was, ‘itna ball laga hai (you were hit by so many balls), are you alright?’” Arvind said. “He said, ‘no problem’.”
The victory at Gabba was built on both heroic resilience and explosive strokeplay. If Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant were at their dazzling best, Pujara had transformed himself into a human shield to protect the team from barrage of fiery bowling from Australia’s desperate pace unit.
It was like watching a boxing match; Pujara taking blow after blow like swinging punches from a heavyweight, serving the count after each blow, before jumping back to his feet and launching himself anew into the fight.
All of this was unfolding in front of Arvind’s eyes as he sat cloistered in his home in Rajkot in the early hours of Tuesday.
“I don’t like to speak to anyone when the match is on. I like to sit alone and watch,” he said over the phone.
It’s like watching the infamous Bodyline series, the 1932 Ashes where Harold Larwood went after Don Bradman, except the batsman on screen is his son.
The bowler is Pat Cummins, the world’s No.1 ranked bowler with a lethal bouncer in his arsenal that he is using liberally on the fastest track in the series, exploiting the spitting bounce off a crack on the fifth day pitch. The match can go either way; the series is on the line.
And, Arvind knows, Pujara will not offer a shot to the short ball. He will not hook or pull. Instead of risking his wicket with a mistimed shot, he will try and get out of the way of the ball; when that’s not possible, he will take it on his body.
“He himself said it, that in the last series he had tried to play a hook and he got out,” said Arvind. “The way this match was poised and the importance of the innings, he decided that whatever happens in this match, he will not play the hook and pull. That is why he took so many balls on the body. That’s his willpower.”
On the fifth ball of the 33rd over, Cummins unleashed a thunderbolt at Pujara that hit his helmet. The physio came out for a concussion check. Australia sniffed vulnerability. After that they are unrelenting. Cummins and Josh Hazlewood went on a bouncer barrage. Pujara took all the blows; one bouncer broke his helmet. He was hit on the chest, the back, the ribs, and on the hand. “He got hit 11 times, but the main worry was on three balls, one the blow on the finger, second when he was hit near the neck and when the helmet broke. Those were dangerous,” Arvind said. “It felt like it could be a major injury. I thought, will he have to go to the hospital now? But when he started playing, I could relax.”
Cummins’s bouncer is awkward because it’s unpredictable, said Arvind, a former Saurashtra wicketkeeper who’s also Pujara’s coach. “It doesn’t come from the half-way, it jumps up from closer to the batsman,” he said.
The tensest moment for Arvind was when a Hazlewood delivery hit Pujara on his fingers and felled him. It was not the pain that caused him anxiety, but whether Pujara will be able to continue batting. “Thoda tension aa gaya tha,” said the phlegmatic Arvind. “The reason for the tension was that because he is hit on the finger, he may not be able to play. Then to hold the bat only becomes very difficult. But he took some treatment, stood up and started playing. He was playing mainly with one hand for the first few balls; the second hand was only for support. When he started playing with both the hands, then I got confidence. It was a crucial moment in the match, if he would have gone at that time, it wouldn’t have been good for the team.”
Arvind and his son have been on a cricketing journey together since India’s No3 batsman was eight.
Before every tour, Pujara still spends weeks in a “bootcamp” in his father’s academy, 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. Before this series, instead of a few weeks, the bootcamp lasted a few months because of the lockdown and the pandemic-induced disruption in the sporting calendar.
Arvind is well-known in Rajkot as a disciplinarian coach, but Pujara’s courage and grit also came from the adversities he has had to face.
He lost his mother to cancer when he was 17. “(That day) he sat in the bus and spoke to his mother, asking her to send me to the bus stand,” Arvind said. “When he got off the bus, he did not find me, but some other person telling him that his mother is not there anymore. There cannot be a bigger shock than that.”
Then, early on in his international career, Pujara needed surgeries on both his knees.
“That’s the worst because in ACL injury, you can’t play cricket for almost a year,” Arvind said. “Then I suffered a heart attack (while Pujara was still in recovery). In those situations, the emotional trauma, the patience one needs, the ability to think under pain and pressure…he faced with courage.
“From his childhood he has one quality: that’s fighting spirit,” Arvind said. “In this innings, at the highest level, the world got to see this.”
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