The Making of Cheteshwar Pujara

Another compelling argument for nurture over nature
UPBRINGING
Arvind Pujara watches the Ahmedabad Test in his Rajkot home (Photo: BIPIN TANKARIA)
Early stirrings of a champion in the making

It is about sixty paces from the wicket to the pavilion at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad. When Cheteshwar Pujara made this trek on the second day of the first Test against England, he did so having scored his first Test double century. The innings came on a pitch that was an all-you-can-eat buffet for Indian batsmen. But a Test double still takes some doing. As Pujara and Pragyan Ojha, the other not-out batsman, headed for the Indian dressing room, Arvind Pujara, sitting in his Rajkot home about 225 km away, could at last get up when he pleased.

Arvind Pujara, a former Saurashtra player, is Chetesh- war’s father and first coach. Arvind’s father also played state cricket, as did his brother, Bipin. Arvind is a deeply religious man but has no superstitious tics when Chetesh war is batting. But not getting up when his son is at the crease has become one by default. “Once I sit, I don’t feel like getting up… you concentrate so hard [on the match]. And [not getting up] becomes a super- stition,” he says. He did not go to Ahmedabad to watch the match. Being a widower, he is mostly alone at home. This is festival season. He did not want to lock up the house and be elsewhere when people dropped in. Arvind’s wife, Rina, died of cancer in 2005. She now lives on in memories and photographs, where no tumours can grow and where her constant expression is a smile.

“What I did [coaching Cheteshwar] is there in front of the world. But people don’t know how much his mother did,” Arvind says. “All the sanskara, and things like nutrition, came from her. In Gujarati, we have a saying. ‘A mother is worth a hundred teachers’.”

Arvind Pujara looks a bit like Anupam Kher. “Yes, people say that,” he says with a laugh. But Pujara is chubbier and has light eyes. He speaks with us in a Gujarati-inflected Hindi interspersed with English phrases. When he awaits us in the swanky new three-storey house the Pujaras have built off the 150 metre Ring Road in Rajkot, he is standing on the staircase, taking a call on a gadget that requires you to use the entire width of your palm.The Pujaras are a devout, orthodox family. “We are Raghuvanshis, Ram bhakts,” Arvind says. There is a large rangoli at the entrance, and a spacious prayer room outside Cheteshwar’s bedroom. Cheteshwar prays there everyday when he is home. When he is touring, he carries a puja kit with him and sets it up in his hotel room.

We sit on sofas in the drawing room, which looks out on to a terrace garden. The tiles are white and smooth, accentuating the sweatiness of our feet. In one corner of the room hangs a Samsung large-screen TV. The match is on. England are now batting after India’s declaration, and though they are fighting back, India are in a very strong position. Arvind Pujara does not have to concentrate hard.  At our asking, he begins to narrate their story. It is a storyof a middle-class family producing an India cricketer because one man had a hunch and his family had the discipline to turn that hunch into reality. Much like the Tendulkars’ story.

When Cheteshwar was two-and-a-half, a friend of Arvind’s nephew visited them. He was a photographer. Charmed by the toddler, he took him to a nearby garden to take pictures. He also carried a toy bat and ball. One of the pictures shows the little Cheteshwar trying to go up on his feet to negotiate a ball coming up to his chin. From the picture it looks like a mishit. But the boy’s eyes are intensely focused on the ball. That is what Arvind saw. And he saw the foot raised on its toes. In another photograph, he saw the natural follow-through. “There was a light in my mind,” Arvind says. He gets up from the sofa to get enlarged, framed copies of the photos. (In the meantime, a domestic help brings ice cream in steel cups).When Arvind returns, he also brings a large horizontal composite image a local photographer had gifted them. It shows Cheteshwar the toddler and the present day Cheteshwar playing ostensibly identical shots. To Arvind, the symmetry of the two pictures confirms the accuracy of his intuition.

After the young Cheteshwar’s chance photo session in the garden, Arvind started taking him to the ground. He tossed rubber balls at him. After a couple of years, he thought a second opinion was necessary. He called Karsan Ghavri, the former India left-arm bowler whom he knew and who was Gujarati too. Ghavri asked him to bring the boy to Bombay. “He saw him and then told me in our Kathiawadi dialect that the boy has it and that we should work hard on him.”   

This is where the story gets inspiring and rich in lessons for families ambitious for their children. This is also where Rina’s contribution becomes apparent. “If you want to make your child disciplined, you, the parents, will also have to stay disciplined,” Arvind says. “You will have to forgo a few things. Most parents these days watch television till late in the night. When you yourself are watching TV, you can’t ask the kid to sleep early. He won’t.”

At the Pujaras, it was lights out by 9 pm. If Rina had pending work, she would get up after everyone was asleep and quietly complete it. For years she did not go to even see a navratri garba, a big occasion in Gujarat. If relatives called to say they were in town and asked Rina to meet them in the evening, she would refuse because Cheteshwar would have practice in the morning.

Arvind’s other non-negotiable rule for those wanting to raise champions concerns diet. “There should be no fast food at home,” he says. “Food has to be healthy. My wife handled that. She ensured there was coconut water for Cheteshwar every time he came back from practice. These are small things but in the long run they pay. He batted eight-nine hours [8 hours, 33 minutes] in this innings. We are vegetarian. Where did he get the stamina from?”

Rina also drew Cheteshwar into the world of prayer. As a boy of about five,Cheteshwar would like to play video games. His mother would let him,if he prayed for ten minutes. Arvind and Rina quarrelled over this approach of hers. He felt that if she wanted to allow him, she needed to do it unconditionally. “I told her, don’t blackmail him,” Arvind says. There is a rubber band wound around the fingers of his meaty left hand, which he fiddles with now and then.“She said I was misunderstanding the situation. Because of her, he is now used to puja. The other thing, he would get dried fruits as prasad, some cashewnuts or almonds. Some kids don’t like dried fruit. They wouldn’t have it if you just gave it to them. But when offered as prasad, he had to take it and it was nutrition.”

Prayer keeps Cheteshwar’s mind balanced, his father says. And it is the balance that helps him in his cricket. Back at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad, after India had won the first Test, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni said of Pujara that he was a calm presence in the dressing room who understood his role and accepted his responsibilities. “Even after scoring a double hundred, he stood at forward short leg,” Dhoni said. “He is one of our best fielders for that position, or silly point. He could have easily said he wasn’t feeling a hundred per cent.”

The trained mind also helps Chetesh- war construct big scores, which have become his hallmark ever since he started making a name for himself. Pujara famously scored three triple centuries in a month for Saurashtra. Just a few matches into his Test career, he has a double century and a 150-plus score, and a vital 72 in the fourth innings against Australia in his debut Test. As a boy, he scored 5,000 runs in under-14 to under-19 cricket, a rare achievement. “His mind is a bit different,” Arvind says. “He is very balanced. That’s the key point. So he can bat according to the situation.”

Cheteshwar’s mental endurance was tested in 2005, when he was playing an under-19 district match in Bhavnagar. His team lost. He called his mother to say he was leaving by a Gujarat transport bus and to ask his father to pick him up in the evening. When he reached Rajkot, his mother was no more. “He was shocked. He felt grief. But he did not shed a tear,” says Arvind. “I’m older but I [still] get tears in my eyes. He doesn’t. On the fifth day, there was another under-19 match in Bombay. We sent him to play. The atmosphere at home wasn’t the best.”

Cheteshwar’s heart was not in the game. He did not perform and came back to Rajkot for the 12th day rites, which only he, as the son, could perform. During the ritual Bhandara in an ashram, he met the family guru, who told him a few simple things. But because they came from him and they came at a certain time, they registered. He told him that his mother had been there so far and she had taken care of him. Now, if he wanted to become a cricketer, he would have to take care of himself. He would have to eat right and on time, among other things.

Rajkot is a typical Indian small town, some parts impoverished and some others beginning to see a new prosperity.Small towns may have their disadvantages, but for Arvind Pujara they are better on balance. It is harder for small-town cricketers to get opportunities, but the benefit, he says, is that small-town kids do not have the distractions or arrogance of kids from metros.

“You will feel bad,” he says.“…but metro kids have a lot of vices. Less discipline. A little bit of success and they think ‘I’ve become a big player’. Metros don’t have [one] culture. It’s a cosmopolitan society, cultures mix and no one culture prevails. Here, one culture prevails. If you want to drink, you feel ashamed, thoda check bhi rehta hai. In a big city, you wouldn’t know what your kid was up to.”

There is glamour in cricket, but he believes his son, not just pious but recently engaged, will resist the advances of the temptress, whatever form she assumes. “You give my son ten bottles, 50 bottles, he won’t drink. Because he is not interested,” Arvind says.

He gives us a tour of the house, on condition that the photographer only sees and doesn’t shoot. In the gym, which is in the basement, there is a smell of rubber. Two pairs of Nike workout shoes lie in a corner. In addition to the treadmill-type equipment, there is a ten-pair dumbbell set, ranging from 2.5 kg each to 25 kg. The dumbbells are black. Lying there in a straight line they look like an army of sorts. You expect a similar set of white on the other side, glaring back at the black set. Arvind Pujara shows us Cheteshwar’s bedroom, and the temple outside. The temple is under a large window from which you can see the bustle on Ring Road. The bedroom is that of a wealthy young man. It is slick and spacious, with a bed in the middle and another Samsung large-screen TV. Tony Scarface Montana wouldn’t be out of place in this room. There are plastic bags with stuff on a horizontal plane under the TV. But this is not Tony Montana stuff. This is not yayo. These are bags of cashewnuts and almonds. Because Cheteshwar now has to take care of himself.