“That’s a no-ball isn’t it?” whispers Puja. “No, no his foot is behind the crease enough. He’s safe,” Cheteshwar replies.
Tamim Iqbal has just claimed a contentious catch on the boundary off Eoin Morgan, and the TV frame at the Pujara household in Nottingham’s leafy suburb of Gamston is frozen on Mashrafe Mortaza’s front-foot, umpires reviewing the decision at The Oval. The chat – rather free-flowing and candid till then – has paused abruptly. Puja and Cheteshwar are lounging in the couch facing the television as the discussion shifts to whether Iqbal’s fingers were completely under the ball. Next to them on the single sofa sits Arvind Pujara. He doesn’t say a word. He’s used to being in Cheteshwar’s shoes, or gotten used to it anyway of late. Puja sat next to him, constantly picking his brains or at times voicing her opinion about the cricketing action.
It’s a daily ritual for the Pujaras on Cheteshwar’s match-days. The mornings start with Arvind going for his brisk walk along the charming canal that passes behind the row of one-storey townhouses on Elterwater Drive— the Pujaras are at No 58 till the end of June. Upon his return, the three sit down for a home-cooked breakfast, strictly sandwiches for Cheteswhar, before India’s premier Test batsman leaves home for Trent Bridge in his sleek, new BMW. Puja and Pujara Sr start half-an-hour later and arrive at the ground before start of play at 11 am. They don’t leave until 6 pm, regardless of whether Cheteshwar is batting or not, and it’s during these seven hours, where the two soak in the many charms of county cricket, that Arvind undertakes a crash-course in cricket’s intricacies for his daughter-in-law.
“There are times when he’ll say ok stay quiet for an hour when the play gets really interesting. But otherwise he talks me through how the game works. Basically I want to learn enough so that even when I’m watching a match on TV, I should understand the game better. It shouldn’t be that I clap only for fours and sixes,” says Puja.
A stint in county cricket has always been a major learning curve for any international cricketer outside the English Isles. But “learning” is a word you hear incessantly from all three of the Pujaras as they talk about their respective experiences of what is now their third county stint, on and off the field. While Puja’s learning more about the sport that the family she’s married into lives for, she insists that Cheteshwar is learning to live the life of a normal man. It’s not just grocery shopping, an errand that the doting couple insist on completing together, though Puja insists India’s most reliable Test batsman is getting good at that too.
“It’s just basic but because he’s not exposed to it, he doesn’t know. Even when it comes to his food, which he’s so cautious about, he now can check the protein content on things himself. Back home I had to take care of that too,” she says.
Far away from the hustle-bustle of Rajkot, where each one of them is busy tending to their own chores and responsibilities, in their home away from home in Nottingham, the Pujaras are also learning more about themselves and each other. Like Puja puts it, they’re developing an even stronger bond despite enjoying what they can never dream of enjoying back home, “Me-time”.
Arvind is also learning to experiment with his food, even agreeing at times to trade his “patli chapattis” for Subway sandwiches and pizzas.
The life of an Indian cricketer, for all its glamour and opulence, is curbed by boundaries. On the field with whatever he does and doesn’t do within the ropes being scrutinized by some billion pair of eyes and when off it, within the confines of the four walls of his hotel room. Nottingham is only an hour and 10 minute train ride away from Birmingham—that’s how long it takes you from Ghatkopar to Nariman Point on a good day—where Pujara’s Test teammates, Virat Kohli & Co are dealing with that claustrophobia in the build-up to the big-un, India v Pakistan in a world event.
But despite being this close to the madness, Cheteshwar is enjoying more freedom than ever before. He reveals that their home in Rajkot is much bigger in size than the townhouse they presently inhabit in Nottingham. But somehow there seems to be more “space” on offer here and even a tighter connect between the close-knit family.
Townhouse No.58 has four bedrooms, a furnished living-room, a slightly cramped kitchen and a lovely lounge at the back with wall-to-wall glass windows and the cosy back-garden behind it. The Pujaras try their best to utilize most of it. When they aren’t huddled together in front of the TV, they are in the lounge, each with a book in hand. Cheteshwar’s reading the biography of Steve Jobs while his father has come prepared with his collection of religious and spiritual books.
But Puja has taken the plunge. “I have started reading cricket articles. I have gone from reading Opeds and business pages to now starting from the back and going only as far as the Global page,” she says but Cheteshwar is quick to add, “but I have told her strictly not to tell me anything that’s written about me.”
Not having any domestic help here should mean more responsibility, but according to Puja if anything it lessens her load, for she has her two boys helping her out.
“Back home even if Cheteshwar wanted to help me in the kitchen it’s odd, because they’re all observing him. Here it’s different and both of them equally help me out,” she says. But ask about Pujara junior’s skills in the kitchen, and pat comes the reply, “No, no, he’s not getting any better.” She raves about how good he is at clearing the kitchen though, and how organized with the dish-washer to arranging stuff in the wardrobe. It is Cheteshwar Pujara after all.
The mention of Playstation leads to a little pow-wow between father and son. Arvind doesn’t like his son sitting with the joystick for too long. He’s worried it’ll affect his eyes. But Cheteshwar doesn’t agree with him, insisting that it’s the perfect way to give his mind a break. You try to play mediator but Arvind isn’t impressed nor convinced. “Yeh aap bolne se main nahi convince hone wala. Eye specialist ko bolne do,” he says with that smile.
Cheteshwar talks about how a lot of successful people, including the richest businessmen have used Playstation as a tool to de-stress at which point Puja begins to chuckle. “Yeah yeah, I know I know there are a lot of people” but still with the smile on her face, a bubbly presence to offset the always tranquil father and son.
But it’s Arvind who has the final word on the major influence that video games have had on his son’s life. A young Cheteshwar loved playing his Nintendo games while growing up when his late mother had a condition. Before each time he sat with his video games, the kid had to pray for 10 minutes. Arvind frowned upon this deal between mother and son as “blackmail.” But his wife prevailed.
“She said she wanted Cheteshwar to learn about religion. Koi university mein yeh sikha nahi sakte.” He recalls. And that’s been his secret for success; the ability to forget the previous ball and concentrate on what’s coming next. “And I have to thank his mother, and OK, video games for that.”
Arvind Pujara is famous himself – for developing one of modern-cricket’s finest Test batsman. During the Rajkot Test against England, he shared almost as much camera time as his son—hands folded and back slightly bent forward; clearly a father on the edge of his seat. It’s the same here. But that’s the chilly draft that’s quintessentially English.
At Yorkshire, the father-son duo were invited to lunch in the president’s box, while at Derby the family learnt to mow the lawns themselves, taking turns. He raves about the deep-rooted interest amongst the locals here who turn up with their scoring-books and appreciate every good shot and piece of fielding they see. It did take him a while, however, to get used to the thousands who turn up at Trent Bridge and other county venues and their ways.
“At first thoda ajeeb lagta tha to see them bring chai, nashta and sit and read newspapers. But then I found out how much they know about cricket, and started enjoying the atmosphere. And I like how din bar khaate rehte hai kuch na kuch,” he says. What he relishes even more is the opportunity during the lunch-break to walk on to the field and even inspect the pitch from close quarters. What he doesn’t get though is how the English love having their ice-creams even when it’s 7 degrees. “Pappa, it’s their summer after all I tell him always,” Puja says.
Cheteshwar makes a valid point about how unlike the Ranji Trophy, counties score points for batting and bowling even when they lose. “We just sit and cheer when they reach 250, and then on 300 one more point, so another cheer,” Puja says. Not having to worry about having the camera zooming in on her, ball after ball, also means she can be less conscious and also “chew and munch” on whatever she wants. “There was that embarrassing moment during Sachin Tendulkar’s 199th Test when I was caught chomping on bhel-puri with Ravi Shastri on air,” she recalls sheepishly.
It’s time for photos soon, and you are given a tour of the house. After a couple of posed ones, they’re asked to be more natural and to just indulge in their daily routines. Arvind quickly grabs one of his spiritual books and takes his usual seat in the lounge. Next to him, husband and wife indulge in a little banter about how one’s talkative and the other is not.
“Ok Cheteshwar talk to me. It’s so difficult for you na, come on at least pretend to talk,” Puja jibes and Cheteshwar—who is known to be quite the unassuming sledger himself—doesn’t hold back either. “Oh it’s never a problem for you,” he says and both laugh.
The Pujaras don’t feel the need to socialize much here. They do visit relatives and friends in Leicester on occasion while Puja is also keenly awaiting her trip to the nearby National Water Sports centre where she wants to kayak along River Trent.
“She’s an adventure sports freak,” says Cheteshwar, “She sky-dived in New Zealand. We are not allowed to do it and even otherwise I wouldn’t be interested.” Puja also likes to check up on two-day courses in topics of her interest, and is already hoping for a visit to Scotland once the Nottinghamshire stint is done in a month’s time. She is in touch with the player’s wives who are in Birmingham but isn’t sure whether the plan to meet them would happen.
The ride offered back to Nottingham station sees another jovial pow-wow between the Pujaras with Puja insisting that her husband is a strict tutor behind the wheel.
“Oh my god, he’ll be on my case. Don’t pull over here, you cannot do this there. I’ll tell him but I have gotten off here and he’ll be like no, no,” she tells you. “I only say it’s better to be safe than sorry, and it’s always better to follow the rules,” comes his response.
By now England have all but reached their target at the Oval. And Puja has a valid query. “Why isn’t Jonny Bairstow getting a place in the XI? Wasn’t he the top-scorer for England in their third ODI against South Africa?” she asks. You explain to her about how Bairstow doesn’t fit into the playing XI as a specialist batsman. The other two Pujaras simply smile.