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Wall II of Indian cricket

Our faith in Pujara

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BRIGHT START: Three-year-old Cheteshwar does a Tiger Woods, showing an early aptitude for his sport

'Wall II'. 'The Rock'. The labels are coming thick and fast. But while the comparison with Rahul Dravid may be inevitable, Cheteshwar Pujara could well turn out to be the next Laxman.

Cheteshwar Pujara is the new toast of Indian cricket. All his Test innings so far have shown that the boy from Rajkot who has earned the nickname 'Wall II' is slowly slipping into the shoes of the legendary No. 3 he has replaced, Rahul Dravid. People are comparing Pujara to Dravid because of his tenacity and ability to play long innings like Dravid. This is a quality which made Dravid so special, and a quality Team India sorely needs. Pujara's tenacity was on show even when he was very young and he carried it first to the first-class level, and then to the international stage, with ease.

But if there is a bit of Dravid in Pujara, there is also a bit of VVS Laxman in him. It might be a co-incident but like the stylish Hyderabadi, Pujara too is a very religious person. As a matter of fact, a majority of cricketers are religious, with some bordering on the superstitious.

Both Laxman and Pujara seem to derive their mental strength and balance of mind from their belief in the supreme force. There are stories of how during his playing days, Laxman would carry idols of gods and goddesses wherever he went.

Pujara's daily puja (prayer) after the day's play - or often before it - is something that has become quite famous in the dressing room. It is something which his late mother, Rina Pujara, taught him. If Pujara has been able to overcome the sadness of his mom's death due to cancer even before his Ranji debut, his frequent setbacks due to on-field injuries and his father's ill health, it is all because of his mental strength. Maybe he derives it from his daily prayers. Interestingly, the girl he is engaged to is also named Pooja!

Pujara and Laxman's similarities don't end there. Anyone who saw Pujara celebrate after reaching his hundred and double hundred in Ahmedabad will remember that like Laxman, Pujara's celebration was a very simple one - taking off the helmet, raising the bat towards the dressing room and then acknowledging the crowd with a smile.

Not even one of Laxman's 17 Test hundreds were marked by pumped-up celebrations, like many youngsters.

So far, Pujara has also shown that that he scores at a rate (53. 07) which is closer to Laxman (49. 37) than Dravid (42. 5). When Laxman used to be at the crease, there never used to be a dull moment. Like Laxman, Pujara also likes to play the pull shot more frequently than Dravid. This has come from training on cement wickets, facing bowlers from 15 yards instead of the usual 22 at his father Arvind Pujara's coaching academy at the Railway Colony Ground in Rajkot.

Pujara's father, a former Ranji Trophy cricketer from Saurashtra, would ask all his fast bowlers at the academy to bowl as fast as they could from the shortened length.

"We don't have even a Ranji Trophy bowler in our academy, so how would Chintu (as he is fondly called) get the practice he requires? So by practicing that way, Chintu got used to the fast pace and bounce and is able to play the pull and hook shot easily. Practicing on cement wickets was a disadvantage for the overall growth of his game but we tried to work that towards our advantage and it seemed to have paid off, " said Pujara Sr.

Some even feel that like Laxman, Pujara could be more useful at No. 5 for Indian cricket in the long run. Virat Kohli, who is also looked upon as the future captain, can become a Ricky Ponting-like No. 3. Kohli bats at No. 3 or 4 for Delhi and could also be a more useful player upfront in Tests, when the ball is relatively new and comes on to the bat more easily than at No. 5, when the ball is old and slow bowlers are in operation.

Kohli's first-class average (51. 29) and strike rate (55. 51) is way above his Test figures. In ODIs, Kohli bats at No. 3 and has an average of 51. 81, which comes down to 40. 88 in Tests. Pujara, on the other hand, bats at No. 4 or 5 for Saurashtra and has also shown that he has the technique and temperament to play both the new and the old ball with equal ease.

Having Pujara at No. 5 will give India the Laxman-like solidity in the middle. And like Laxman, Pujara can play with the lower middle order and the tail more responsibly and more effectively than Kohli can.

Pujara has done that many times while playing for Saurashtra and one recent example is his unbeaten 96 at the Kensington Oval, Bridgetown, against West Indies A. Pujara, captaining India A, batted at No. 5 and took India to a two-wicket win in a fourth innings chase.

Saurashtra's Ranji coach Debu Mitra doesn't see any reason why Pujara should come down the order since he has established himself at No 3. Former India stumper and ex-chairman of the selection panel Kiran More see him going up and opening the innings rather than coming down. But his father says: "Pujara is the kind of cricketer who can play in any position and any format because his basics are very correct and he can adapt to different situations and different conditions very easily. Actually he can play in any position from 1 to 5. It is up to the coach and captain to see how they utilize him to the maximum.

"I never dreamt of all this. His mother always wanted Chintu to play Test for India someday but I just wanted him to be a good cricketer. So I did whatever I could to make him a good cricketer, " says the father.

Some who have seen him growing up in various maidans of Mumbai and every nook and corner of Gujarat are not surprised by his rapid rise. He grew up learning cricket from his father but his game developed when he started playing in Mumbai from a very young age.

"Mumbai offers a different level of competition. The daily travel from one corner of the city to another to play cricket on different types of wickets and different types of opposition is a good learning process for any youngster, " says Pujara Sr, who used to take his son to Mumbai during every summer vacations, stay in tiny rented accommodations arranged through some old friends from his Ranji Trophy days, and ensure that 'Chintu' got a taste of the maidans.

"We used to sleep on the floor and eat out. It was kind of like a vacation for me and my wife, Rina, and we used to enjoy it a lot. Chintu never used to have any issues with what he is eating or where he is sleeping. He was only focused on his cricket and our aim was to give him the opportunity to play as many matches as possible, " feels Arvind, who is very grateful to his cricketing friends.

"No doubt I saw some talent in him but I was a father. I was worried that I will be biased, so I took him to Karshan Ghavri, who is a very good friend. It was he who first told me that Chintu can be special if given the right kind of support and exposure. Ghavri, along with Ravi Thakker, the current junior selector of Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA), helped me a lot, " says Pujara Sr and adds: "Since Thakkar knew most of the clubs in Mumbai, Chintu started getting opportunities to play for some club or the other all round the week. So if he played six matches in one week, at the end of the month he would have played 24 matches. If we stayed for two months, the number would be doubled. In Rajkot, he could have practiced as many hours as he would have wanted but cricket is played in the middle, not in the nets. One has to play matches and more matches to succeed and that's what Chintu got at a very early stage.

"He always wanted to play more games and used to put in more hours in practice, " says Thakkar, who saw Chintu from the age of 10. "He is a very nice and obedient boy and was completely focused on his job. Like every youngster he liked batting a lot but his hunger for runs and his disappointment when he gets out was something different. He never liked to get out and did whatever was required so he could bat for long periods. That was his hallmark, " adds Thakkar.

Very soon, Chintu's hard work started showing results. In 2000, the 13-year-old scored a triple hundred against Baroda while playing for Saurashtra. Kiran More, who watched the entire innings, says: "I was amazed by his concentration, discipline and determination for one and half days when he scored those runs. The team scored something around 450 and Pujara's score was 320 or 330. In that level of cricket, team totals are less than his individual score. It was amazing. "

"Pujara is quite used to playing on tracks and conditions like this so I was not surprised when he hit the double against England. His real test will be when India tours abroad, " says Saurashtra's Ranji Trophy cricketer Sitanshu Kotak. "But I have no doubt that he will also do well there because he has this ability to adapt quickly to different situations and conditions, " adds Kotak.

But Pujara says: "Once you get big scores in home conditions you get a lot of confidence. Even with the 'A' team I've toured abroad and been successful in tours of UK and Australia. I would love to go abroad and repeat the same kind of performances there too. "

Knowing Pujara, he will keep the faith and succeed. After all, he has overcome bigger hurdles in life.

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