India grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat in the first Test against Australia at Mohali in 2010. VVS Laxman, Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha rescued India, taking the team to a one-wicket win. Cheteshwar Pujara was in the squad and watched it from the sidelines. He described it as one of his favourite moments in Test cricket.
Little did he know that he'd be guiding India to a whitewash in the 2 Test series in the next match. A composed 72 off just 89 balls in the fourth innings of a Test on debut is not child's play. With the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman reaching the twilight of their careers, India needed a replacement and Cheteshwar Pujara was up for it.
The right-hander came into the spotlight when his century guided Saurashtra to their second consecutive Ranji Trophy semi-finals, eight years ago. A 20-year old Pujara finished the 2008/09 season as the third highest run scorer behind Wasim Jaffer and Ajinkya Rahane. He scored three triple-centuries that season. Even though they came on the flat pitches of his home ground, he had the perseverance and the hunger to score big.
His critics slammed the way he paced his innings and said that he was too slow. But come next season, his strike rate was one of the highest among all the batsmen in the tournament. He is still criticised for his slow paced game, but he is unfazed by it. An ecstatic Virat Kohli was right in calling him the best Indian Test player along with Rahane.
With just one spot in the reckoning and some strong competition in the form of the experienced Badrinath and Rohit Sharma, Pujara made a case for himself and gave the selectors a lot to ponder. A poor show in South Africa didn't deter him as he kept toiling hard in the nets. But he faced a huge blow when he hurt his knee in the 2011 IPL, which kept him out for a major chunk of the year.
With the retirement of Rahul Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara was called back to the Indian side. That move paid dividends as he scored a magnificent century against the touring New Zealanders. Starting off his career occupying Laxman's spot, Pujara then went on to make Rahul Dravid's spot his own. His run with the bat grew better as he went on to score his maiden double-century against the touring English. His solid performance in the surprising 2-1 series defeat at home was the only positive for India in that series. He scored another double-century in the second Test of the 2013 series against the visiting Australia, cementing his spot in the playing eleven.
Pujara's batting revolves around his impeccable ability to tackle any bowler. He has a strong bottom hand but doesn't hit the ball in the air. Even though he has a very short bat lift, his follow through is textbook. Unlike other players who tend to move a lot, Pujara remains still and composed. He had a splendid tour to South Africa in 2013 and won the ICC Emerging Player of the Year, but he had a reality check when he followed it up with dismal tours of New Zealand and England where he could register just a solitary half-century in 14 innings.
He came good against Australia in 2014/15, but he felt the need to consolidate more while travelling overseas. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa says, "It is not about how hard you hit, but it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving." Pujara shrugged off the dismal tours and answered his critics with a brilliant century against Sri Lanka.
In the 3-0 drubbing of South Africa in 2015, Pujara played his part by scoring over 200 runs in 3 Tests. In the next home assignment against New Zealand, he scored 373 runs but his efforts were overshadowed by the brilliance of Virat Kohli. Having scored some big runs against England in the initial phases of his career, Pujara continued to do the same as he struck a couple of centuries as India drubbed them 4-0.
After failing in the first Test of the ongoing Test series against Australia, Pujara rose to the occasion in the second Test when he scored a match-saving second innings half century which was crucial to India's victory against the Aussies.
Off the field, Pujara doesn't sport a big mansion with a supercar. Rather, he uses the money to build good sporting facilities for the people of his city. Talk about selflessness and following the footsteps of his idol, Rahul Dravid.
We talk so much about the big names in the Test arena, but the contributions of Cheteshwar Pujara have gone almost unnoticed. And yet, all indications suggest that he is destined for greatness.
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