When opportunity meets preparation, champions are made.
Just ask Cheteshwar Pujara. Having scored 1180 runs at an average of 65.55 that includes 4 centuries, 3 half centuries and 2 double centuries in 13 Tests, this man was born to shine, wasn’t he? Earmarked for greatness as it were.
No, not really. They said his runs were easy runs, scored against bowlers as incisive as a baby that had not yet begun teething, and on tracks that put some of the roads in India to shame. He was supposed to be, at best, an almost player; a domestic stalwart but international non-entity.
He spend five years grinding it out in domestic cricket as he saw flashier players jump ahead of him in the queue for a batting berth. He just kept batting. Finally, his chance came. He scored a composed 72 on Test debut against Australia, shepherding a tight chase. It seemed that all his years of hard toil were about to pay dividends. And then he got injured. He missed a year. They said he couldn’t make a comeback. They said that he had lost a step, that he was finished. But he kept on batting. On and on and on.
The comeback trail then. The man he was replacing had the small matter of 13,288 Test runs and 36 Test centuries to his name. The team he was slotting into had lost 8 successive overseas Tests. Add to that the notoriously fickle public and media, the host of hungry young batsmen snapping at his heels and the pressure of a comeback, and he could be forgiven for being just a bit nervous. If he was, it didn’t show. He passed 50, then 100, then 150. He was eventually dismissed for 159, but he looked every bit the player they said he couldn’t be.
His concentration has been talked up; he seems to enjoy a reputation most orange juice manufacturers would kill for. A lot was said about his discretion too. However, that has led to a common misconception – that he is overly cautious. His batting does not have a je ne sais quoi about it; he lacks the panache and pizazz of an Amla, Pietersen or Clarke. His technique is good enough, but it’s not quite textbook.
You remember his innings, but you would be hard-pressed to remember a shot that made you gasp. Fair enough. His batting is more than the individual shots he plays, it’s more than the sum total of its parts, it’s the entire process that matters. It’s not about the purity of technique, but the soundness of it. He was the only player on either side to master the treacherous Kotla wicket in the 4th Test of the home series against Australia. By the end of it, he looked like he was batting on another surface.
It would be an injustice to him to call him a plodder. He takes his time, but he makes it count as well. He picks up the tempo as his innings goes on. In that sense, he is not so dissimilar to a manual car; you don’t go from 1st to 5th, you make a smooth transition. In his last Test series, he was striking at 62.44. The most striking aspect of his batting is that once he gets in, you need a stick of dynamite to get him out. Scratch that, bring along Wile E. Coyote’s entire collection and you might have a chance.
He has been picked for India’s ODI tour of Zimbabwe; and despite the fact that he has not played a single ODI yet, he is expected to be a pillar of both solidity and stolidity in an inexperienced batting line up.
In his own words, ‘I think I have the basics, now it’s just about shifting the gears at the right time, and that comes with more matches at the international level. My technique is correct. Yeah, maybe at times, you need to learn more shots and you need to play according to the situation, but that comes with experience.’ I couldn’t have put it more succinctly myself.
A good series could well see him cementing his place in the ODI side, perhaps he will make the number 4 slot his own. He seems versatile enough, he can rescue the team from a top order collapse, and he is smart enough to rotate the strike in the middle overs. ODI matches are won when one batsman bats through, and that does seem to be his modus operandi.
I could point to his recent List A scores – 158*, 124* and 79 at a strike rate of 107 – as proof of his ability, or offer his 2735 runs at an average of 56.97 as testament to his calibre and pedigree. I won’t. The critics can pick apart at imaginary frailties; the nay-sayers can shake their heads till they fall off. The selectors have faith, and more importantly, he does too.
After all, when opportunity meets preparation, champions are made. And whatever else he is, if we can be certain of one thing, it is this – he is the ultimate opportunist.