Upon reaching his hotel room in Ranchi after his double hundred earlier that evening, Cheteshwar Pujara took out his phone and flicked through a pile of unread congratulatory messages. One particular notification caught his eye. “Well played,” it read, simple and concise. Having seen it, Pujara slept peacefully that night.
The text message was from his father, Arvind. There is, to the outsider’s eye, nothing significantly emotional or excitable in those words, nothing that mirrors the perceptible paternal pride of someone whose son has just faced over half-a-thousand balls in a single Test innings, and registered a double hundred of invaluable merit. But that is just the way Pujara senior is. “Whether I score a hundred or a double hundred, he congratulates me with these same words. He doesn’t get overboard emotionally. He is not very expressive. Not just in cricket, but in life too,” says Pujara. His son has grown accustomed to it.
Even when the two are conversing on either end of a telephone line, they keep it minimalistic, even a bit measured in tone, with little emotional frills. “I cannot remember any instance of him being excessively emotional,” he says. But Pujara is convinced that, “somewhere down in his heart, I know he is immensely proud of his son.” Plain or colourless his father’s words may be, but they are central to Pujara’s sense of fulfillment, even when several other parameters of feeling fulfilled have altered.
For instance, it’s no longer only batting marathons that satisfy him. There was a time, not long ago, when he rued missing out on big hundreds. But now he gives precedence to value over volume. “Now, I feel content if my knock, be it a 50 or 200, comes in a vital juncture of the match, and if helps my team win the match. So I rate my 92 (in Bangalore) over my 202 (in Ranchi). It’s a big mistake if you start counting your longest innings as your best innings,” he asserts.
Not that the Ranchi effort was less satisfactory, but the Bangalore one was more satisfactory, even if he had faced 304 balls less, scored 110 runs fewer and missed out on a hundred by eight runs. It may not even be the quality of the bowling or even the state of the pitch. But just the situation. “When I walked back (after being dismissed), I was not regretting those eight runs I didn’t get, but was feeling happy that Ajinkya and I had pulled the team out of trouble and put them in a reasonably secure position. We were just 30-odd runs ahead of Australia when Ajinkya joined me, and if one of us had got out then Australia could have dismissed us cheaply and maybe won the match,” he recollects.
It was perhaps not as much physically exhausting as it was in Ranchi. But mentally, says Pujara, it certainly was more draining. “In your mind, it felt even longer than the Ranchi effort,” he says.
As in Ranchi, the first thing he did upon reaching his hotel that Bangalore evening was check his phone for his father’s message. It was those same words, “well played.” It filled him with that same intangible joy. A peaceful sleep ensued.
Sometime after his half century in Ranchi, Pujara felt a sudden surge of excitement. “I was seeing the ball really well, the feet were moving well and I felt like playing a lot of shots. In fact, I tried a few expansive shots, which went straight to the fielder, though. But then I looked at the scorecard, and we were still 120 runs short of Australia’s total (451),” he says.
It was a strange quandary for Pujara. For someone who is often faulted for batting slowly (a hollow fault nonetheless), here he was in a positive mood, but shackled by the circumstances. The situation warranted Pujara to play, well, like the old Pujara, and not the more assertive version we have grown accustomed to seeing in recent times. So he was in two minds. “For a few deliveries, I was a little confused as to whether to go for my shots or play more defensively,” he admits.
But he realigned his focus and reverted to the old archetype. “I had a chat with Wriddhi (Wriddhiman Saha, his batting partner) and then decided to play the waiting game, unless of course if it was a really loose ball. In any case, Wriddhi is generally an aggressive player, and could keep the scorecard ticking along, and I needed to keep one end up as long as I could. I kept telling myself that I wouldn’t play a rash stroke.” he says. Rash Pujara would be an oxymoron.
“I do sledge,” he says. It’s not an admission, but a matter-of-fact statement. It is at odds with his impression at large, that of a placid, almost passive, presence on the field. But it’s just a misconstrued impression. “We all sledge, but it’s something that happens spontaneously, as in we don’t plan to do it beforehand. It just happens, and the only thing we are concerned is that we don’t cross the line. We are careful to not make personal comments at the opponents,” he says.
During both his memorable knocks, he was peppered with expletives. He was unflustered. “I don’t get verbal when I bat. The only way you can silence them is to bat longer and the sledging will also stop. They too will get tired. But we, as a team, always get motivated when we are sledged,” he says.
Can you recollect any specific incident? The Pujara woven in our impression steps in, and sidesteps it. “What happens on the field stays there,” he says, diplomatically.
No grandiose celebrations awaited him when he reached his home in Rajkot. There were just a handful of his relatives and home-cooked food. That’s the understated way the Pujaras celebrate. The father and son hardly talked shop. Pujara just lazed around. But the next morning, he was feeling a little restless. After six frenetic months of non-stop cricket, he was feeling a little “weird” without it. He went to his father’s academy further down the cricket stadium. “I spent some time with the boys there. It will be a really proud moment when one of the boys from the academy makes it big. I also spent some time batting there. It’s difficult to not play cricket,” he says.
While there are negotiations with a few counties, Pujara has already begun preparing with India’s overseas trips in mind. “Back in my mind, that’s always there, that I couldn’t score as many runs as I had wanted in England and Australia. So in this spare time, I’ve planned to work on a few things,” he says.
For Pujara, it seems, that the real sense of fulfillment comes with bigger scores overseas. And of course those two words of his father — “well played”. Or, maybe, a few more words coated in emotion. He can then sleep peacefully.