India has a rich pool of cricketing reserves. Proof of it comes days after the retirement of the much accomplished and highly rated VVS Laxman as a man 13 years his junior gets a chance to play in his stead. Cheteshwar Pujara, making a comeback after an injury lay-off that saw him out for six months, made it count as he slammed his maiden Test hundred to put New Zealand on the back-burner. This despite many questioning his fitness levels.
Several questions had been raised on how the middle-order will cope in the absence of the Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. While early days still, Cheteshwar Pujara's style of play more than the figure next to his name has shown that there is not much to worry about although the path ahead is long.
The 24-year-old walked to the middle after Gautam Gambhir's rather early dismissal in the opening Test of the home-season. While he has faced greater threats under more challenging circumstances earlier, he was at ease from the word go as pacers were employed to attack him from wide off the crease. There was the rare bounce and the occasional one that kept low but Pujara dealt with all that was thrown at him despite losing senior partners at the other end.
For those who have followed Pujara's technique and his cricketing path, there was nothing unusual about how the Saurashtra player was going about his business. After all, he had a splendid 72 on debut against Australia to add credence to his skill, an innings that took India to victory in Bangalore. That was almost two years ago. Two Tests in South Africa followed but they weren't exceptional although not out rightly dismal either. Competition was tough. To retain his place became tougher.
With runs flooding out of his bat in the domestic circuit, the wait for a recall to the national side however was only a matter of time. In the Indian Premier League, Pujara first played for Kolkata Knight Riders and was then picked by Bangalore Royal Challengers. He showed good temperament in the shortest format of the game as well. After all, he belonged to a family which had already produced cricketers like Arvind Pujara (father) and BS Pujara (uncle) who had played in the Ranji tournament.
Having the best of techniques and maintaining the right temperament in the middle however cannot guarantee games. As fate would have it, Pujara injured his knee during an IPL match against Kochi which saw him at the sidelines for over six months. The player himself however admitted that he remained 'passionate and motivated' throughout. It worked!
India A toured the Caribbeans and West Indies got a bitter taste of what Chintu as he is called at home, is capable of. On the pitch, he let his blade do the talking but off it, Pujara maintained that he was determined to maintain his fitness even as many continued questioning his ability to last. What they forgot perhaps, was that it was not just a motivated player working hard but a determined father backing him up. Arvind has been right behind his son and Pujara has said it has helped him improve greatly.
Returning to Hyderabad and the Test against New Zealand, while Cheteshwar will be pleased with his efforts, he will know that another man back home will possibly be prouder and will feel more redeemed that anyone else.