Who is this Che Pujara?
I don’t quite recall the exact moment I made his acquaintance but it was in all certainty thanks to a tiny scorecard tucked away in a single column of a newspaper. The sort of updates booked for First Class cricket heroes and their extended families. At times they are no bigger than the obituary ads, a few more words though.
Those days I knew him as Pujara. He had a big first name, Cheteshwar. The type of name my ad-head scanned as in dire need of rebranding. There was my first love, Jatman (Sehwag) before him. And I was growing quite fond of this Pujara guy – he just kept scoring big in those tiny scorecards, it was like my little secret. And now I wanted to add to it. In my mind, it was as if HLL was preparing to launch a cricketer. So a name, yes, and damn well we needed packaging too.
The name came almost too easily. Cheteshwar became Che Pujara (from Che Guevara, who else) and morphed into the revolutionary.
|Look how Che Pujara talks|
“Have you seen this kid bat?
No, I haven’t seen this kid bat
You gotta see this kid bat
If you haven’t seen this kid bat
Some kid called Pujara!”
(From November, 2008)
Not having watched him play meant trying to read up on whatever scraps going on the web: he was after all only a First Class cricketer who played for Saurashtara. One with a fetish for triple hundreds; he scored his first when he was 13. And much like Emraan Hashmi became a serial-kisser, our Che Pujara became a triple century wonder.
But that India call never came, and it appeared my clout as a selector was on the wane. My belief in my boy, however, was strong. And the IPL was coming to town.
Which IPL team does Che play for?
Does Che even play for an IPL team? Surprisingly, he does. But the last five seasons haven’t quite played out for him. Going by his IPL record you’d expect him to be the last man on any selector’s radar: no last ball sixes, no bear hugs from SRK, no sweeping mentions from Ravi Shastri, no love on air from Sunny Gavaskar; the most I’ve seen of him in any IPL has been in the dugout — first for Kolkata Knight Riders, then for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
I doubt either KKR or RCB are the teams for a player like Che. Why? For the same reason neither of these teams, in my opinion, would have worked for a player like Ajinkya Rahane. Precisely for the same reason Mumbai Indians didn’t work for him. Players such as Che and Rahane, strike me similar in their studious, almost stoic approach to the game. Now think: where would you play Che, who would you have mentor him? I’m thinking Shree Rahul Sharad Dravid, headmaster, Rajasthan Royals.
As a franchise, RR has offered much to Indian cricket – and most of these cricketers are more than T20 flashes in the pan: Yusuf Pathan, Ravindra Jadeja, Naman Ojha, Ajinkya Rahane, and who knows, Che Pujara next?
Only Tests or One-dayers too?
India is yet to lose a Test Che has played in – his first, he won us against Australia. Remember his counter-attacking 72 at No. 3 in the fourth innings? Of course you do, it was barely two years back. Mid-way through the Test before his match-winning innings, I heard someone ramble on about Che on air for the first time; it was me on Test Match Sofa. After a first innings that lasted barely three minutes, one scoring shot to the boundary, I was sticking my neck out for the debutant. Soon Sehwag would stick his bat out, India 17/1, and look who’s walking out instead of Dravid – it’s Che.
|A player with a nose for a chase|
I stood up as you do when your kid walks out to recite a poem or do his gig at the school annual day function. I felt my muscles tighten, I drew on an imaginary cigarette, I feigned bravado, I abused the Aussies, I compelled Che to bash them. What stays in my mind from that day is one shot – Che rocking back, making room, exposing his stumps and carving Hauritz past backward point down to third man for four. That eased my nerves, made me abuse nobody and everyone in particular. Take that you infidels!
When Che was dismissed, I couldn’t believe it. Not to Hauritz! Yet I was thankful, relieved. I was talking to Che on his way back. The usual ‘well-played-dude’.
Since then he has played only two more Tests, both against South Africa. Injury and rehab, his old friends, came calling again. Che had to return to the First Class route. He missed out on the Australia tour. In three IPL games, he made scores of 11, 6 and 0. That was followed by the flight to the Caribbean as the India ‘A’ captain for the unofficial ‘Test’ series.
The first ‘Test’ was at the Kensington Oval. It’s in a time-zone far, far removed from us. The game wasn’t telecast. There were no ball-by-ball updates on the web. But the West Indies Cricket Board (@westindies) kept us updated splendidly on Twitter. A handful of Indians followed Che Pujara’s heroics that night – “At the stroke of the 2 am hour, when the world sleeps, Che Pujara will awake to life and freedom”, I tweeted drunk on the win and residual beer. 96 not out, partnership of 72 for the 9th wicket. Take that.
The following day’s newspapers didn’t carry anything on Che’s latest diary entries. You can’t expect them to redo the paper at 3 AM for an India ‘A’ win. Today, all our four papers carried the story. Times of India has been generous with up to four columns and a big, bold headline – “A-class Pujara leads team to thrilling win.” Mail Today has a near-full page: “Gritty Pujara guides India-A to thrilling win.” The Statesman nearly an entire column: “Pujara scripts thrilling victory”. Hindustan Times though has the abridged update and mini scorecard of old: “Skipper Pujara guides India ‘A’ to thrilling victory.” One thing we all agree on – it was a thrilling win.
There will now be a strong push for a Test spot. However, a Test spot alone will not sustain Che Pujara’s international career – there are far too many players, now considered one-day mainstays who the market and media will continue to push into the Test side. Being just a Test regular is the shortest route to obscurity. Think Aakash Chopra, Wasim Jaffer, VVS Laxman, Abhinav Mukund...
Then again, who knows, after a rough overseas’ Test series, the selectors could make an inspired move, and shock Che into the ODI squad. Just as they did with Rahul Dravid.
Graeme Smith was 22 when he captained South Africa
There must be a reason why Che captains India ‘A’ ahead of Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan (even though all these players have played more internationals than him). Che is now 24, and much like Smith, he has the stomach for a fourth innings’ chase.
Seriously, what’s with you and Che?
Before Che, there were Aakash Chopra, Amit Mishra, Murali Kartik, Subramniam Badrinath, and to some extent, even VVS and Dravid, the wallflowers of Indian cricket. For me, often an unexceptional cricketer not getting his due is far more attractive than one that does many times over in the name of potential. Loosely translated, I like players our system works hard to screw.