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Monday, May 16, 2022

201*, 109, 203, 170*: Can selectors ignore Cheteshwar Pujara’s Sussex runs?

With scores of 6, 201 not out, 109, 12, 203 and 170*, Pujara has underlined his status as the most-prolific active first-class cricketer. With no like-for-like replacements, the decision to keep India's long-time No.3 out would be tough.

Written by Sandeep Dwivedi |
Updated: May 9, 2022 10:41:20 am
Cheteshwar PujaraCheteshwar Pujara celebrates after scoring a double century against Derbyshire. (Cheteshwar Pujara/Instagram)

In contrast to the din and dazzle of IPL, Cheteshwar Pujara, these days, is in Sussex wearing whites, entertaining the English county faithful, parked on grassy banks on their garden chairs with their pets for company.

In those idyllic surroundings, he has scored a couple of double tons and two hundreds in his first four games. On Day 3 of his fourth outing against Middlesex, he had reached another century and remained unbeaten at 170*. Besides his runs, Pujara’s stint on the county circuit has also got headlines because of his team mate and rival from Pakistan. His 100 runs partnership with Mohammad Rizwan against Durham in the last game and his six during Shaheen Afridi’s incisive first spell on Saturday became social media fodder.

Notwithstanding that audacious upper-cut six and strike rate of 83.89, Pujara continued to underline his association with the timeless art of batting that keeps getting eviction notices from cricket venues across the world. He has remained the stubborn custodian of that refined skill, flying the lone flag, keeping himself and his batting approach relevant.

His latest run-spree bumped his first-class double hundred count to 15, giving him entry into the Top 10 of a list that has Bradman at the top. The elite club has mostly gentlemen from the black and white era with WG Grace two places behind India’s Test specialist.

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Pujara’s consistency in reaching 200-plus scores is only second to Bradman’s. His double hundreds, at an average, show up after 25 first-class innings. Cricket’s undisputed GOAT, The Don, needed around 9 innings.

Among the active cricketers, Pujara is head and shoulders above his contemporaries. On the most first-class 200 list, Virat is second with 7, with Rohit Sharma (5) and Kane Williamson (5) further down the order – all staring up at the impossibility of dethroning the man with the unquenchable thirst for runs.

However, the most storied shake-up of this double hundred list is Pujara’s leap over Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, Ranji to the world. It’s a charming tale featuring the pioneer who gave Indian batting a template and the last of the kind holding on to those century-old batting principles.

Much before Bollywood woke-up to Brighton – stars like Deepika Padukone, Akshay Kumar, Abhishek Bachchan, Jacqueline Fernandez, have danced at Sussex’s vibrant town with eight-mile long beach, Palace Pier and bright painted timber huts – India’s cricketing royalty were a big draw here. Ranji was followed by Tiger Pataudi, both larger than life cricketers placing India on cricket’s world map.
Continuing the India-Sussex tradition, Pujara is getting his name on English honour boards and also triggering Ranji references.

Their proximity on the list – Rajkot-born Pujara 9th, Maharaja Jam Saheb of Nawanagar 10th – mirrors their geographical closeness. Born more than a century apart, the two, one royalty and the other working class, had cricket thrust upon them. Cricket for them didn’t prove to be some forced compulsion, it turned out to be a life-long pursuit.

Like all princes in the days of Raj, Ranji went to the school established for the young royals – Rajkot’s Rajkumar College. It was an institute that imparted English education and cricket lessons. British coaches were shipped in to teach the heirs of princely states the nuance of the game, the right conduct on the field and dressing room decorum.

In India for a long haul, the colonists were using the game to replace the native culture with the British way of life. Their liasoning with the locals would be smooth and profitable if they spoke a common language and similar sensibilities. Cricket was a tool of assimilation.

Ranji, at least on the pitch, proved to be a rebel. Like the Englishmen, he didn’t offer a straight bat to the ball aimed at him. As Neville Cardus wrote, as only he can: “The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”

Early in his life Pujara too got a cricket bat in his hand, and that would be his guiding light and walking stick for life. Unlike Ranji, the son of a Railway employee Pujara wasn’t privileged. He had his father, Arvind, as the coach, who had his own version of the MCC coaching manual. But like the British coaches who trained Ranji, Arvind too insisted that his son played the game the way it should be.
Despite being born in the same city where Ranji got his schooling, Pujara couldn’t even dream of going to the Raj Kumar college. It wasn’t something his father could afford. With palaces starting to get transformed into boutique hotels, Raj Kumar College would be the preferred education institute of the region’s well-heeled elite.

None of Pujara’s schools – Sadguru Bal Mandir, Lal Bahadur Shastri Primary School, Virani High School, Ramesh Bhai Chhaya Boys School – could come close to Raj Kumar College’s grandeur. Only one had a rudimentary play field. The one where Pujara spent his final academic years, was bang in the middle of a busy market, not far from the Fire Brigade building and one stinky naala. It was an obscure building with a small courtyard being its only open space.

What attracted the city’s best talent there was a cricket-crazy principal. “Since most young players would be busy playing tournaments, they would have attendance issues. At the end of the term, the principal and the PE teacher would magically show that the children had regularly attended school,” says Sr Pujara.

That basic perk was the reason the school with no cricket ground or a coaching programme went on to win the state inter-school tournament. Legend has it that Pujara won most games single-handedly.

With this basic support system, nowhere near the scale of Raj Kumar College or the Nawanagar Palace treasury, Pujara developed a game that took him to Ranji heights.

As if there was something in the air that remained suspended since the days of the Raj, Pujara, like Ranji, would develop a trait to work the straight ball on the pads to the leg side. With time, the famous Ranji glance would evolve. The basic wrist work remained the same but the batsmen could now maneuver the ball in a bigger arc. Pujara could work the ball from mid-on to fine-leg, the degree of his wrist tweak deciding the angle the ball would take.

The whip-cracking glance would be in the quiver of most sub-continent batsmen but Pujara had something extra. He had also retained in him cricket’s ancient wisdom. He could play time, a fast-disappearing trait that was no longer taught at cricket camps. These days during summer vacations, when the coaching centres get unusually flooded with impressionable kids, it’s IPL that is fresh on their minds. Playing time was so boring, leaving the ball was sacrilege, having more than one shot for a ball was a passport to franchise trials.

Despite his IPL misadventure, Pujara’s batting remained pristine. His 15 double hundreds point to an important aspect of his batting. He is no Sehwag. He can’t race to a 200 in no time. Pujara needs to pace his innings, wait for the loose ball, see through deadly spells and break the resolve of the opposition team.

He knows the art of survival, he can bide his time, be the predator with an unblinking focus on his prey’s one moment of weakness or tiredness. Only those who can treat dropped catches, play-and-miss blips as minor mishaps and move on, can climb to Mt 200, 15 times. And the life lessons learnt during those walkathons that programme a batsman to go on a run-binge after getting dropped from the national team.

For any out-of-favour 34-year-old, like Pujara, the assurance of selectors of keeping the door open may sound hollow but still they dig deep to find motivation to be in reckoning again.

First-Class Most Double Hundreds in Career

No. of Centuries Player’s Name Span
37 DG Bradman 1928/29-1947/48
36 WR Hammond 1925-1946/47
22 EH Hendren 1919-1936
17 H Sutcliffe 1922-1939
17 MR Ramprakash 1992-2010
16 CB Fry 1900-1912
16 JB Hobbs 1909-1933
16 GA Hick 1985-2004
15 CA Pujara 2008/09-2022
14 KS Ranjitsinhji 1897-1908
14 CG Greenidge 1974-1990/91
13 WG Grace 1866-1896
13 JT Tyldesley 1898-1919
13 CP Mead 1911-1933
13 WH Ponsford 1922/23-1934
13 GA Gooch 1980-1996
13 BC Lara 1992/93-2006/07
13 KC Sangakkara 2001/02-2017
12 P Holmes 1920-1932
12 RB Simpson 1959/60-1967/68
12 Javed Miandad 1974/75-1988/89
12 JL Langer 1993/94-2007
12 Younis Khan 1998/99-2016
11 JW Hearne 1911-1929
11 A Sandham 1921-1937
11 VM Merchant 1941/42-1946
11 L Hutton 1937-1953/54
11 DS Lehmann 1989/90-2006
11 CJL Rogers 2005-2014
10 A Shrewsbury 1882-1892
10 J Hardstaff 1935/36-1951
10 RT Simpson 1946-1952
10 VS Hazare 1939/40-1957/58
10 GM Turner 1971/72-1982
10 Zaheer Abbas 1970/71-1982/83
10 G Boycott 1967-1983
10 SM Gavaskar 1970/71-1983/84
10 IVA Richards 1975-1993
10 MW Gatting 1983-1998
10 BJ Hodge 2003-2008/09
10 RS Dravid 1992/93-2009/10
10 DPMD Jayawardene 1997/98-2013/14
9 R Abel 1895-1901
9 FE Woolley 1911/12-1935
9 GA Headley 1927/28-1946/47
9 LEG Ames 1928-1948
9 ED Weekes 1949/50-1953/54
9 DCS Compton 1939-1954
9 WJ Edrich 1938-1956
9 PR Umrigar 1952-1959
9 DM Jones 1984/85-1996
9 MS Atapattu 1995/96-2004
9 MEK Hussey 2001-2005
9 ML Love 1997/98-2008/09
9 MW Goodwin 2001-2011
9 RT Ponting 1994/95-2012/13
9 W Jaffer 1996/97-2018/19
9 P Dogra 2011/12-2019/20

So when the selectors sit to weigh Pujara’s county runs, it wouldn’t be a decision about a seasoned cricketer in the final hour of his career. It would be a call on a time-tested batting approach that has survived since the Ranji days. As the 200 run-getters list shows, Pujara is the last of a breed. There wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement for him.

By turning the Pujara page, the selectors will end a chapter and close a cricket book forever. They need to be careful and very sure.

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