On October, 9, 2010, Cheteshwar Pujara did it. He really did. Test f***ing debut. That was quite a day. Oh, how we had waited. We? Who’s we? A handful of cricket bums, who believed in Pujara before he became Test cap No. 266.
On March 30, 2009, Pujara became Che Pujara. A graphic with designs on an alternative cricketer. It’s another thing, he already was an alternative cricketer. How else does a one format batter extend his career to 100 Test matches.
This was not supposed to happen. Pujara’s Test career was on borrowed time – within less than a year of making his One-Day International debut, he played his last ODI. That was 2014. During this time, he played 5 ODIs. He did not play any T20 internationals. That he played in the IPL was often a source of amusement.
Amusement that Pujara had not intended. Amusement that his demeanour, his approach to the game, his being a down and out one-format player brought on.
During these 100 Tests, Pujara has been dropped, discarded, demeaned. Unlike the more prolific names, he was never rested. Rarely has he been injured. That is the preserve of the greats, those that have the comfort of three formats, the backing of airwaves, the smokescreen of the IPL.
Pujara stands naked to all scrutiny. It’s almost always been that. In the past, he has been raised to the heavens by a head coach, only to be flattened later.
By now, anyone who has watched Indian cricket will be aware that commentators follow a code of conduct. One that makes them steer clear of criticism of certain players. Pujara is far from certain players. He is often the butt of all jokes. His fielding. Approach to batting. Running between the wickets.
In spite of all this, Pujara propelled India to its first Test series win in Australia. And second. Yet, the joy in nitpicking. Something that Pujara lends himself to often. Probably just the way he is, that kind of character,
And what a character. What a belief. Watch Pujara in any interview, more so during a Test match, in an adverse situation, the deadpan confidence is downright ridiculous.
But then Pujara is ridiculous. He has extended his career to 100 Test matches. Across more than 12 years.
The attraction to this cricketer came from his batting numbers, his triple hundreds, his backstory, his state of origin, Saurashtra, the cricketing backwaters in those days. All from articles without watching him bat.
Everything that added to the conviction, that we must do something to market him. And just like that Cheteshwar Pujara morphed into Che Guevara and became Che Pujara.
That is how it began. And then only recently, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said ‘CheMystery – I don’t know what’s happening.’ If I didn’t back then, I do now. It’s about choosing someone, and sticking with them, through it all, for what they are, in spite of what they are. Where their flaws make them unique.
I’ve been drawn into Pujara’s career by the conviction in his batting, his methods, his approach, his ecosystem; as also that of his father’s Arvind Pujara’s. This in spite of never having met or spoken to either. We did have a brief Twitter exchange once. That’s it.
Through these 12 years, often, I can sense when he will be dismissed. When he gets going with a flick off middle through square leg, I sense he’s pumped. But then, he surprises me with the dismissal at Nagpur.
I did not expect him to make it to 100 Tests. That isn’t part of the Indian playbook.
There was a time when Pujara and Rahane were neck and neck for the axe. That the white ball distractions had dimmed in Pujara’s case, probably helped him extend his Test career.
Pujara, though he may appear to be a loner, or even a lone-ranger, has his mates within the team – none more outspoken than Ravichandran Ashwin, whose smashing tribute, gave us a peek into the stubbornest of them all.
That Pujara’s greatest batting ally in recent times, Rishabh Pant, will not be by his side, will be a miss. Pujara-Pant made the Test series’ wins Down Under a reality. They achieved what generations had not before them. This cannot be said enough. They are both once-in-a- generation Test batsmen that forged a mystical cricket bond in the middle. Every preconceived notion about Pujara was thrown out of the window through their partnerships.
Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid at the helm, their combined belief in Pujara, have made this 100th Test match a reality. It’s been a rocky road but would Pujara have had it any other way? Had it been easier, would he have been the man he is today?
Cheteshwar Pujara is a lesson in resolve. He is the action that is often dished out as rhetorical bullshit.
He is a superhero. It’s just that you never knew it. Because he was never packaged as one. Even if we packaged him as one, he had to turn up in all-whites sans a cigar.
15797 deliveries later, let’s surprise ourselves. In addition to Kohli, Rohit, SKY, let’s root for the man in the shadows. For he has also been the sun that made the shadows possible. We just chose to ignore it. For it was never blinding.
Gaurav Sethi tweets @BoredCricket He branded Che Pujara.
Cheteshwar Pujara: 103 Tests, 103 Opinions
Cheteshwar Pujara does it again, this time as Sussex's captain
Cheteshwar Pujara, old wine in a new bottle
Seven instances of Cheteshwar Pujara's masterclass in Test cricket
India's silent resistance - 'Che' Pujara
Gaurav Nandan Tripathi
Pujara’s 102* — an extraordinarily anomalous knock
Gritty Cheteshwar Pujara’s double ton show at Lord’s
Glimmer of hope for Pujara as he scripts incredible comeback in Sussex colours
Decoded: What ails Cheteshwar Pujara?