When Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul are in the news for their outrageous comments on a third rate TV chat show, it shows us why cricket needs more people like Cheteswar Pujara who take the long road to success, one that is less glamorous but definitely more rewarding.
‘Put on your red shoes and dance the blues’ – David Bowie
It was a pity that the celebrations after a historic series win in Australia took place after a day on which there was no play. It was gloomy and it drizzled endlessly. Historic victories need to end on a fitting note, one befitting the magnitude of the win. A perfect end would have been a Jasprit Bumrah yorker sending the stumps cartwheeling. Or Cheteshwar Pujara holding on to a skier securely. Then, all 11 players gravitate towards the middle of the pitch like bees towards a hive and a minor scuffle ensues on who gets to keep a stump for posterity. These are the scenes historic victories are made of. Not drizzle and gloomy skies.
It isn’t as if we know much about Cheteshwar Pujara but if there was one thing we learned, it is that he can’t dance. Facing 1258 deliveries, the most by an Indian batsman in an Australian series, surpassing the person whose shoes he had been ordained to fill – the great Rahul Dravid, seems to be easier than doing an impromptu jig for the cameras.
There are a few things as beautiful as waking up in the morning and
listening to MS Subbulakshmi’s Suprabatham. The closest competition to that is a test match and the sound of the ball hitting the willow. And at the end of the India-Australia test series, a very unlikely hero emerged.
Cheteshwar Pujara has a moniker to himself – Che Pujara. It’s a very unlikely prefix for someone you wouldn’t think of a firebrand rebel.
Che Guvera, whose face adorns many t-shirts sold in black markets and whose exploits those who wear those t-shirts surely don’t know of, can’t be further from Che Pujara. Pujara is an understated batsman who can bat without a pause button and goes about his duties without much fuss. His ramrod focus enables him to bat endlessly, like some Trollopian length Stephen King novels.
In an age of instant gratification where teams are willing to take a punt on uncapped players and turn them into overnight millionaires after an IPL auction, Pujara isn’t deemed fit for the IPL. He isn’t even in the scheme of things when the ODI series of a tour comes around. When Rahul Dravid retired, writer Mukesh Kesavan said he feared that test cricket was dead. Who could possibly fill ‘The Wall’s’ shoes when it came to test cricket?
Thankfully, Cheteshwar Pujara was waiting in the wings.
When great players retire, there is a rush to identify their successors. It is nothing short of a miracle that in Virat Kohli, India were actually able to find someone who could step in gargantuan shoes of Sachin Tendulkar. Why, on current form, he may even surpass the master one day. Pujara was always ear marked to be Dravid’s successor. Rahul Dravid, after being dropped from the ODI side early in his career was able to through sheer will and tenacity modify his game to the shorter format and be an integral part of the limited overs side for a decade. On that front, Pujara hasn’t been that fortunate. While those in the Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly and Tendulkar era grew up aspiring for greatness in test cricket, Pujara is playing in an era where an IPL contract is one’s ticket to glory.
In the age of Swiggy, Cheteshwar Pujara is like your grandmother’s cooking.
Dhoni was never himself when he played test cricket. What retiring from the format gave him was a lot of time. It’s the same with Pujara. When a test series is over, he falls out of the radar. Instead of turning up on crass TV shows, doing television commercials and trying very hard to stay in the public eye, he turns up for his state side Saurashtra and plays county cricket. How does Pujara spend his free time? By playing more cricket.
He is currently in the A grade in the BCCI’s contract list and after his exploits in the Australia series, they are talks of upgrading him to the A+ Grade, the highest possible, one where he will be bracketed with Virat Kohli and earn 7 crores.
In 2019, any test specialist will be accused of being born in the wrong era. But a lot of what Pujara does doesn’t answer to any rule book. He’s not a rebel, but rather, he’s wired differently. Instead of wearing flashy clothes and dressing up like someone in a 50 cent video, he has a cricket school that coaches children free of cost. Dropped time and again by the Shastri-Kohli combine, ostensibly for not being in the aggressive mold that they seem to champion, a cursory glance at Pujara reveals that he doesn’t fit into most molds.
Pujara, who has had to face the ignominy of being dropped from the side for scoring too slowly.
Pujara, who sits and watches as obscure players make millions in a single season of the IPL.
Pujara, whose face doesn’t adorn countless billboards endorsing everything from chips to alcohol.
Pujara, who faces 1258 balls in a single series but isn’t deemed fit for the IPL.
At the other end of the spectrum is Hardik Pandya. While much has been said about his insensitive comments on a deplorable TV chat show, he should realize that he is treading dangerous waters. If he wants to crystal gaze into what his future may look like if he continues on his path, he needn’t look too far for there is a striking cautionary tale from Mumbai itself. Vinod Kambli, once a rising star of Indian cricket, crashed and burned when he couldn’t handle the blindly excesses of fame. The money and fame that Hardik Pandya commands is way more than Kambli did during his time. Both have a penchant for the fast life and appearing on crappy TV shows.
After the 2013 spot-fixing fiasco, the BCCI made a half-hearted attempt at cleansing the game by banning after-parties. But the mentoring and sensitization of young players has been overdue. For every Cheteshwar Pujara who wears fame lightly on his shoulders, there is a Hardik Pandya whose flashy clothing, lifestyle and insensitive comments are a reflection of how much they have been blinded by the arc lights and fame.
In 2003-2004, India came close to winning a series in Australia. It was Rahul Dravid who almost single-handedly won the match for India in Adelaide and if Sourav Ganguly had enforced a follow-on earlier in the last match at Sydney, who knows, we needn’t have waited another 14 years. He would have been pleased that the person picked out to be his successor completed what he couldn’t in 2003-04.
As of writing this, Rahul Dravid is celebrating his 46th birthday. It was he who fast-tracked Pandya’s entry to the side based on his U-19 performances. And it was Pujara who was always touted to succeed him.
Today, he will be proud of only one of them.
It’s now time for the ODI’s. Then the IPL. And then the World Cup. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Pandya and Pujara will be relegated to a distant memory, only to resurface when the next test series comes along.
Somewhere around 2012, Virat Kohli turned his fitness and career around. Not know to shy away from partying, many thought he too would be lost to the maze that is instant fame. It can be debated whether his on-field aggression and behavior is role model worthy but one thing is for sure – for Virat Kohli, the game comes first. He is one of the fittest, hungriest and most consistent in international cricket.
Retired NBA superstar Charles Barkley is one hell of a colourful character. He has had numerous run-ins with the law for gambling, getting into altercations and drunk driving. He featured in a popular Nike ad in the 90s where he claimed he wasn’t a role model and didn’t intend to be one.
He’s right. No sportsperson is paid to be a role model. They are paid to play.
No doubt Hardik Pandya is a great talent, someone who has drawn comparisons with the great Kapil Dev for his all-round abilities. If he seeks to have a reasonably successful career without self-destructing, he can take a page out of Pujara’s book.
Cheteshwar Pujara may never earn the money, the fame or the adulation that a Hardik Pandya will receive and he sure as hell won’t appear on Koffee with Karan. But his achievements will be tempered with grace and dignity. The reason why we recall Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble so fondly isn’t just for the awards and the achievements, but for the way they conducted themselves and played the game.
In their own way, they left the game better than they found it. They didn’t do it because anyone prodded them or paid them to do it.
Cheteshwar Puajara understands this.
Hardik Pandya, for all of his fast-scoring and fast-living ways, has a lot of catching up to do in this area.