THE DAY’S hero and India’s ever-reliable No.3, Cheteshwar Pujara, 28, goes by a rather infantile nickname. His childhood friends, with whom he grew up in Rajkot, insist on calling him Chintu. However, for a handful in the stands, who had a hard time holding back tears, Cheteshwar will always remain ‘Pujarabhai no chhokro’.
They are Cheteshwar’s father Arvindbhai’s friends, a close-knit group especially invited by the family for the Test. They have been an integral part of Rajkot’s most-storied cricketing journey in recent times.
They stood beaming, some deeply emotional, when Cheteshwar ran the frenzied single that took him to 100. He reached the crease, crossed the stumps but still kept running towards the pavilion where scattered on either side of the sight screen were those who knew about their Chintu’s greatness much before the thousands who on Friday were making the ‘Poojara, Poojara’ chant echo in the partially-filled stands. For a moment, it seemed Cheteshwar would do a ‘Pat Cash’. He would cross the boundary line, climb over the in-stadia advertising hoarding to be with his family. It would have been out of place. There was a Test on, the run-chase was getting intense, the target was still far away.
Anyway, cricket is too British, Cheteshwar too much of a gentleman, and the Pujaras not too expressive.
His father and uncle — Arvind and Bipin Pujara — both first-class cricketers kept it all in as they stood up and clapped. A floor above, wife Pooja couldn’t hold her excitement. A while back, she was on the giant screen jumping like a child when ‘DRS’ had overturned the umpire’s lbw verdict against Pujara off left-arm spinner Zafar Ansari. After seeing the ‘not out’ sign grow big, she’d seemed relieved. Now as the ‘100’ danced on the screen, she was over the moon. Pujara Senior hadn’t seen any of his son’s 38 Tests, and watched all his 8 hundreds on television. Pooja though is a regular on India’s tour party, her tense face has featured on giant screens many times before but Rajkot had got her most animated. Before she got married, she wasn’t much into cricket; she didn’t even know that Cheteshwar was a cricketer. In a cricket-crazy home, she is a healthy distraction and a big value addition.
Away from the television camera, father Arvind gets emotional, remembers his departed wife. Even before Cheteshwar played the India U-19 World Cup, his mother lost the battle with cancer. This wasn’t just another hundred, not for the family, even for Rajkot. A local boy had become his country’s first centurion at a venue hosting its first Test. If that doesn’t give you goose-pimples, it’s time to see a psychologist or maybe a dermatologist.
The Railways cricket ground, where Arvind took his son as a 4-year-old, the tiny-tot wearing the hand-made mini pads stitched by the mother the night before, is just 12 km from the Saurashtra Cricket Association ground. From the Pujara’s new home, just off the highway to Jamnagar, this newest Test venue is closer. The India No.3 would take six years, where he would travel to all Test playing countries, before playing the home Test in his backyard. It was a period where he had to endure three surgeries and several setbacks on the field.
Pujara took 21 balls to cross the 90s. He faced 11 dot balls on 99. For the likes of Manish Mehta, a Western Railway employee and a qualified international TT umpire, sitting in the West stand with his son though this was hardly an agonizing wait. He and others from the office had waited for close to two decades to see ‘Pujarabhai no chhokro’ in India colours.
“It’s a dream come true,” he says recalling the early cricketing days of his one-time colleague’s son. Mehta talks about a ritual that would be followed at office every time Cheteshwar would score a 100 as a junior. “Arvindbhai would order 3 kg of Kaju Katli and the 80 to 90 strong department would have a piece each and rejoice,” says Mehta, who recalls the trips to temples to pray for Cheteshwar’s success, his first class 300 at the same venue and the soft-spoken boy who never changed.
On match eve, Mehta had gone to the Pujara household to collect the tickets Arvindbhai had promised. That also happened to be the time when Cheteshwar dropped in at home from the team hotel to have lunch. Mehta was with his father. “The first thing he did was to touch my father’s feet. He sat with us for a while, spoke to us. There happens to be a Test match the next day, and we would have totally understood if he had kept to himself. The boy is special, he has never changed,” he says.
Dr Nirbhay Shah is this city’s eminent joint surgeon. The Pujaras consider him family. He couldn’t make it to the ground on this big day since he was just returning from the Diwali break and was busy in the operation theatre. He regrets missing the 100 but he had been getting constant updates.
Dr Shah, and his dentist wife Dr Saloni Shah, used to go for their evening walks at the Railway ground where the Pujaras trained. The couple would watch Arvindbhai spend hours with his son from a distance.
It was only after Cheteshwar scored a 300 as a 13-year-old and his pictures got featured in local newspapers that Dr Shah realised that he might actually have been watching a child prodigy all these days. Arvindbhai would get introduced to Dr Shah and this would be the start of a long-lasting relationship that would play a big role in the life of both father and son.
Initially it would start with the orthopaedic advising the young cricketer about fitness and diet. Later, Dr Shah would become the family’s principal advisor in every affair.
When Chesteshwar would tear his ACL while playing for KKR, he would insist on getting treated by Dr Shah and no one else. KKR, and SRK, would oblige. The injured star would leave for South Africa with Dr Shah. “Just before the operation, Cheteshwar was administered morphine for sedation. And we didn’t know that he was allergic. He went red and rowdy. We needed three to four nurses to keep him tied to the bed. I had panicked that day. However, things got under control,” recalls Dr Shah, who also was there when Arvindbhai had a cardiac attack, and later a by-pass.
He says that the chemistry that the father and son share is amazing. “They disagree, they have debates but they understand each other so well. They have supported each other for so long.” For those who know the Pujaras from close quarters, the 124 was much more than a ton that brought India back into the game.
It was an innings where Cheteshwar started briskly, setting a furious pace by driving the ball with flawless ease. Pacer Chris Woakes would put the brakes on by bowling short. The new stroke-playing Cheteshwar, who is always eager to score and move onto the front foot, wouldn’t get out of the line in time. He would get hit on the helmet three times. He would also survive the Zafar leg-before. But he would eventually reach 100. His innings today was the story of his international career so far. Great start, struggles and success. His father had never seen him bat in Tests, today he got to see the synopsis of his son’s journey so far.
Cheteshwar has a touching message on this Twitter timeline. It’s on Teacher’s Day. It says: “Would like to dedicate this knock to my coach/father on #TeachersDay, thank u for teaching me this beautiful game.”