Gaurav Sethi, who blogs at Bored Cricket Crazy Indians, gave Cheteshwar Pujara the nickname ‘Che’ Pujara, after the renowned Cuban Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. He did so even before Pujara made his Test debut, to popularise the not-self indulgent man.
Right from the start, this kind of christening seems brazenly out of place for a man who (unlike his cricket comrades) doesn’t even wield his wooden bat like a sword, forget carrying a revolution with a gun in hand and a cigar in his mouth.
However, if you reflect on Pujara’s life and career so far (which is what birthdays are meant for), you’ll find that a resistance that is fierce in spirit and gentle in outlook has defined him throughout.
Born to Arvind and Reema, Cheteshwar inherited cricket from his family. Arvind Pujara and his brother Bipin have both played first class cricket for Saurashtra. Even his grandfather, Shivlal, played cricket for the Dharangadhra princely state. This became even more apparent when Pujara was photographed playing a pull shot with a bat that Bipin gave to him.
When Arvind saw the picture, he realised that his 3-4 year old son already had something special – natural balance – in posture and stance. To confirm what he saw was genuine, Cheteshwar’s father took him to Karsan Ghavri, an ex Indian cricketer, who then confirmed the same.
In fact, he wasn’t even allowed to play gully cricket with a tennis ball by his father as it would spoil his game with the leather ball. Arvind instilled this reluctant resistance in his young son to build self control and discipline – the two biggest virtues of a successful test batter.
To ensure that his son gets enough match practice, Arvind along with his wife went to Mumbai in summer vacations where Pujara got to play around 18 games each season. It wasn’t easy to either arrange an accommodation or travel everyday with a huge kitbag around Mumbai, but both Arvind and Reema struggled to make sure Che develops as a top batter.
So, the next time when you see Pujara offering defiant resistance against the best bowlers of the world, remember why he puts such a huge price on his wicket. Resistance wasn’t only the default mode for batting in test cricket for Cheteshwar. It was a way of life.
A few years later when Pujara was 17, his mother from whom he inherited his quiet demeanour and spiritual inclination, passed away due to Breast cancer. She had a huge influence in his early cricket development. She knitted pads for him, and got him his first proper bat worth ₹1500, back in 2005. She wanted him to succeed and play for India one day. Arvind still gets emotional talking about how his wife couldn’t see Cheteshwar play for India.
So to honour his mother’s wishes, just a few days after his mother’s passing, Pujara was back on the field and scoring hundreds in quintessential Pujara fashion – surviving the tough phases and scoring when required – marrying the age old tradition of test match batting with his inbuilt resistance.
Making his debut against Australia in 2010, he came ahead of Dravid at number 3 in his second innings itself, and scored 72 in a tricky successful chase. Soon, he made that spot his own as Dravid’s career reached its twilight. Since his debut, he has scored 7014 runs in Tests at an average of 44.39. Those numbers tell a story of a successful test batter.
But Pujara isn’t your everyday good test batter. He is an anachronism by the virtue of being a rare defensive batter in an age of attacking and now ultra-attacking batting techniques. He is unusually bottom handed for someone with a defensive batting philosophy, which is a result of playing a lot of cricket on slow and low tracks.
However despite all the thousand runs and the plethora of saves by staging a revolt of defence in a bowling dominant era, the warrior batter Pujara wasn’t immune to being dropped. The most notable one being replaced by Rohit in Australia by Kohli and Shashtri, and then in Sri Lanka and South Africa as well.
A batter with a lesser resolve and sense of security about who he is, would have tried to reinvent himself just to get a place in the XI especially when he’s considered a test match specialist. But that power of resistance and belief which was instilled in him due to his upbringing ensured that he isn’t swept away by every wave of change, which strike incessantly on the Che Pujara beach.
“Revolution isn’t a tea party”, the founder of People’s Republic of China (PRC), Mao Zedong once said.
Pujara’s cricket career isn’t a party either. It is a story of struggle and resistance which began from his childhood and continues through every ball that he faces. On most occasions, he is beaten and bruised but keeps standing like a rock in the unwavering danger of the high-tides. Galle in 2015, Ranchi in 2017, Sydney and Gabba in 2021, name a country and chances are that Pujara has shown enough resistance there.
Che stands on a cricket pitch waging a silent but strong resistance against the banality of impulsive attack, as he builds his innings brick by brick, ensuring that the others in the team can bat around him and benefit from the tiring bowlers. He has erected himself as a minimalistic but evocative statue in an era of graffiti. In fact, the mere existence of Che Pujara, the batter, is an act of resistance in itself.
The land of Gandhi may not need to celebrate Che Guevara, but the presence of Che Pujara needs to not only be appreciated, but rather celebrated. Cheteshwar Pujara, the resister, was born on this day 35 years ago.