We are an emotional creed here in India. We drown in love of our cricketers.
If given a chance, nearly every fan would offer the last remaining buck in his pocket to his hero. If he can do more, he’d do anything to accommodate his hero. Girls like to take good-natured boys home. Don’t they? The same way, cricket fans do all sorts of things for their favourites.
The range is expansive and entirely passionate.
It oscillates between getting inked in the same patterns as a batsman and upon variation, meanders into the zone of overgrowing one’s facial hair.
But make no mistake.
This admiration actually comes naturally to us.
Why would it not? We are born in a country where guests are treated not only next to gods but given godly status.
Implicit in this is a harsh reality.
How many times have we cared about idols we suffocate with our love?
Let’s face facts. Sachin is a great batsman. He always was. From day one, he showed signs of being the star he eventually became.
But from ball number one, wherein, Sachin emerged on the horizon to the last ball he played in his international cricketing journey, in all due respect, we loved him so much that not for a second did we care about the burden we were putting on what were mortal shoulders.
This wasn’t a burden of entertaining and living up to the hopes of a country of the size of Greenland, Israel or Finland. This wasn’t the responsibility of entertaining around 6 or 9 million people. This was humongous. This wasn’t T-Rex, this was a responsibility of the size of a Brachasorous.
In that regard, we pushed Sachin- in all respect and regard we extended to him- by making him outstretch himself. Hell, he shattered our TVs when he got out. We switched off from the game, forgetting other admirable men were involved. This was, all done out of an immense passion for the sport.
And to top all of that, we burdened Sachin, pushing him to the edge, by elevating him to the status of a God. How awfully strange must have been the state of our mind?
While all of it was in pure respect, we forgot an important bit.
We forgot that passion is a bit like a double-edged sword.
A failure to entertain and inspire culminates in distaste
Then, one fine day, Sachin retired. The nation, regardless of howsoever lame it was in its attempt at being practical, tried to soldier on.
Having said that, one legend exited only for another to enter. The next big man who came to occupy the limelight was Virat Kohli.
To be honest, it’s quite a task to lay off one’s eyes off him. When Kohli bats, you cannot think of another better sight.
And here lays the problem.
When Kohli bats, the nation feels it bats with it, once again just as it did with Sachin back then.
Now, thanks to Kohli’s exceptionally high standards of consistency, the passion for his game dripping from every pore of his body, from every inch of muscle, there are also superior expectations of him.
And that, thankfully, Kohli isn’t exactly a zen monk like Dravid, one of Sachin’s understated contemporaries whose concrete wall of fortification was often chided for being a bit too ‘old fashioned’ (read slow batting), he’s far from being attributed the ‘god-like status.’
Having said that while Sachin was heading toward his swansong and Kohli was blossoming, coming into his own, another cricketer was solidifying his presence in the team.
So determined seemed this batsman that it did appear, only after a few knocks, that he was here to stay.
Then, despite Virat holding the fort of both attention and run-scoring charm, it seemed that Cheteshwar Pujara was something special and not just another young promise.
In his very first Test, that too against Australia, he scored a promising 72. Within, the first couple of years in Test cricket, he had struck two double hundreds. At present, Cheteshwar Pujara has an average of 49.5.
Let there be no mistake, his average prior to a sedate England Tour, wherein ultimately a fighting hundred was struck at The Rosebowl- that gritty 132- was around 52.
Forget it not, in a time of theatrics, mind games, with the sport fashioning a more flamboyant streak, one favouring T20s, Cheteshwar Pujara knocked on doors of a Dravid-like nostalgia when he took over 50 deliveries in South Africa (2017) to open his account.
Against England, in 2012-13 series, in India, Pujara struck an important Test double at Ahmedabad. Back then, he would bat alongside Ashwin, the same batting partner along with whom he’d construct a vital stand on a challenging Adelaide morning as he’d rescue a fledgling and flattering India against Starc, Lyon, Hazlewood.
In the middle of all this, Pujara has been loved for his patience, dreaded for batting a bit too slow, and somewhere reduced to being a figure whose real value perhaps only comes to the surface when Virat gets out cheaply. And if not, then he’s been someone who’s only perhaps talked about when he happens to hold a stand with someone like Kohli.
Don’t think so? Here’s concrete evidence.
In 2013, during his maiden assignment to South Africa, Pujara along with Kohli added 222 runs at Jo’burg against Steyn, Morkel with the likes of Kallis, De Villiers in Protean ranks.
India drew the Test. Luckily for him- how else are you going to put it- Pujara scored more than Kohli. He scored 153 watchfully collected runs off 270 balls.
But one has to ask in all fairness, did we give Pujara the welcome he may have deserved?
Was it the absence of Aadhaar card in those days the reason for Pujara being a bit lucky in evading the quintessential emotional outpour from the fan?
It wasn’t that the emotive Indian was expected to take off his jersey as Pujara guided India to safety in his 132 at Southampton.
It’s not that the fan should’ve bunked office, missed school or faked an illness to stay home to enjoy Pujara score what’s unarguably been his finest contribution in an overseas victory, a knock, let’s be honest, we even forget crediting the simple man for?
How many boundaries were struck and balls faced by Pujara in his exceptional 2015 Colombo century? This might seem like a question that came out of syllabus.
Let this be rephrased differently
Does the Kohli-obsessing, T20-loving, T10-observing brigade of passionate fans, one that wears tattoos, torn denim with the same passion with which we defend the idea of wearing ‘attitude on our sleeves’ even remember Pujara’s score in taking India home against Lanka in the Third Test of 2015?
What might have been the outcome at Colombo had the right-hander not managed 145 precious runs, and that too as a makeshift opener?
On both occasions, whether in South Africa of 2013 or Sri Lanka in 2015, had Pujara scored more than Virat. On both occasions did his batting ensure that India wouldn’t lose.
Yet, let it be asked honestly, did we reward Pujara for his consistency and focus?
Why leave him out of the love his contemporaries have been showered with? Could we not give this mild-mannered man, one Dravid rooted for and the Test specialist craves to see be extended a third of the attention we’ve single-handedly given to Kohli?
But let’s embrace a tryst with the truth
Instead of regarding Pujara for his valuable contributions for India starting 2013-15, we found it surprisingly easier to criticize him for his ‘slow batting rate.’
With all due regards, it may not even have been a national issue had Virat Kohli, his captain, not had pushed the case for a discussion on the same by giving a clear statement during 2016’s series in India against England.
How does it even matter if Pujara plays the way he does?
Is treading cautiously a crime against humanity?
Was Rahul Dravid the most flamboyant batsman? Did Sachin average fifty from his first Test itself? Had Lara scored his epic triple in his third-ever Test?
Instead of being normal- maybe, something not quite the strength of an over-expressive Indian cricket fan- we hyped Pujara’s slow batting style, so much so, that he often appeared a frail shadow of his former self especially when one revisits his mindless batting as seen in England.
There was that run-out he was involved in. There was a silly stroke right at the stroke of lunch where he holed out to the outfielder.
Could this have stemmed from a radical change in approach?
Was this even needed?
And now, as the old Pujara seems to have returned to his original approach, that of playing cautiously, leaving wavering balls pitched outside off to keep grinding the bowlers, have we pardoned this ‘thinking cricketer’ who, one might even be calling ‘boring’ in this age of endless T20-love?
Cricketers aren’t born to camouflage. Changing to the changing nature of the game comes with practice. While it was heartening to note that quite like his role-model, Rahul Dravid, Pujara stood tall for India when none did, it was also surprising to see him battle and attack.
Nonetheless, whatever it was, the Saurashtra man hung in there, he saw India through a tricky, dangerous position.
In return, he won’t ask for anything, apart from being accepted for being who he is.
This is Pujara, not a robot who’s been trained to bat like a robot. This is Pujara, the house that was built on patience.
It won’t wither away under pressure. It will solidify its position only so, India can be assisted.
Let’s support him. Our hearts are big. Is there some more space for him now that he’s rescued India from potential or near-certain opening day embarrassment?