Cheteshwar Pujara’s body is full of mementos of the fierce Gabba battle, and his courage has made him a cricketing hero
Watching her father wince in pain at the Gabba, mother cringing and taking her eyes away from the television, Cheteshwar Pujara’s daughter Aditi babbled out her two-year-old wisdom. “When he comes home, I will kiss where he is hurt, he will be fine.”
Sitting at Brisbane airport, with a swollen finger and torso still black and blue after taking 11 blows from the Aussie quicks on the final day of the ‘greatest Test’, Pujara shares what his family was going through while watching the fiercest cricketing battle of his career.
It’s not even 24 hours since the time he and 10 others were in the ring throwing punches to avoid defeat and draw. Pujara says he couldn’t sleep much since his painful finger and throbbing shoulder didn’t allow him to toss or turn. But he sounds relaxed. Flying home after a job well done is always therapeutic.
He is amused by his daughter’s home remedy. “That’s what I do to her when she falls, so she believes that a kiss can heal every wound,” he says indulgently.
Daddy’s little girl isn’t yet aware of the big bad world of MRI scans, X-rays or the blinding pain when a hard cricket ball thuds against the flesh. Her father, though, knew all this very early in life. For someone who, unlike the rest of the world, didn’t get initiated into the game by swinging a bat at a tennis ball, cricket for Pujara was always about facing that mean leather ball that couldn’t be trusted. It was no friend; a slight misjudgement and it could make you groan. Pujara and pain go back a long way.
No stranger to injury
Over the years, he says, there isn’t a part of his body that hasn’t been dented by those missiles aimed at him from 22 yards. Sore muscles, torn tendons, damaged tissues and broken bones are stubborn guests in his body. Niggles, meanwhile, are permanent residents. He has played significant Test innings with a broken finger – a 70 against South Africa in Delhi is one he can recall without much effort.
Both his hamstrings have snapped during a game. Athletes rate that as the worst injury. They talk about baby cuckoos dancing around their heads, sudden darkness engulfing their minds with twinkling stars.
That was the only time he hobbled out of the ground. On other occasions, he has taken a deep breath, gulped down the pain and carried on. Never ever allow discomfort to manifest on the face, it is something he learnt from his father Arvind, a hardened first-class cricketer from helmet-less days. Bowlers, old-timers say, can confuse grimace for fear and it can fire them up. Why give those mean men an inch?
Just twice during that second innings marathon, Pujara let the world know that he was seriously hurt. Rest of the time he stuck to his old routine – deep breath, the big gulp, a small walk, a look at the bowler, back to the crease, marking the guard and ready to face the next ball.
“From my early days, I am not in the habit of taking pain- killers. That’s why my threshold to bear pain is pretty high. You play for so long, you get used to getting hit,” says the man who, for the second straight series in Australia, played close to 1,000 balls in four Tests. From Rajkot, Arvind says that he once heard from his doctor friend that pain-killers fool your mind and delay healing. Pujara Jr was around, he overheard it and, like many things connected to his game, this too got embedded in his mind. “Only if the doctors really insist will he take pain-killers,” Arvind says.
Body on the line
Both father and son say that Brisbane was a very unusual game. Pujara has the defence to avoid physical injury through short balls. He climbs on his toes, rides the bounce, loosens his grip and drops the ball dead to his feet. He also ducks, sways away or gets inside the line of the ball. Pujara says things were different at the Gabba. The pitch conditions, the game plan and the match situation made him put his body on the line.
“I mostly got hit from one end and that too against (Pat) Cummins. There was this crack on the pitch around the short- of-length spot from where the ball would just take off. Cummins has the skill to make the ball rear up from there and make it follow you. In case I took my hand up to defend it, there was a risk that I would glove the ball. Considering the match situation and how we couldn’t afford to lose wickets, I decided to let the ball hit my body,” he says.
The other option was to counter the short ball with a horizontal bat but the triangle of fine-leg, short and deep square made it a risky shot. On the last tour, he had fallen playing a pull. Brisbane was too precious; Pujara’s cricket wasn’t dictated by ego or bravado.
So he would get hit on the shoulder, ribs, back and chest. Those he wouldn’t even bother to rub. When hit on the back of the helmet, the neck guard or when the metal visor got mangled, the doctors would rush to the field as part of the concussion protocol.
However, what hurt the most and when he could no longer push down the pain and let out a loud groan was when he got hurt on the already injured finger. At his home, Pujara Senior had a hand on his forehead. “We all were worried seeing him jumping around in the crease and slumping down on the ground. I thought he might have to go inside and end the innings,” he says.
It wouldn’t turn out to be that bad but Pujara’s game did suffer after that injury. Being overly bottom-handed, the blow on the right hand impacted his play. “It is tough to hold the bat, the grip was slightly loose. So you can’t hit the ball where you want to,” says Pujara about the toughest period of the slowest 50 of his career.
Though he couldn’t match his run tally from last time, Pujara says the 2020-21 tour was as satisfying as 2018-19. “That time it was the first win in Australia but this one is really special,” he says.
Courage bestows respect
Like last time, Pujara leaves the Aussie shores as a hero. He is once again being hailed as the saviour of Test cricket, the reason for people to fall in love with the longest game again. The Australians are giving him their ultimate compliment; they are calling him a ‘F@#*@#g Legend’. The equivalent honour back home – Saurashtra ko Saavaj (Lion of Saurashtra) – too is being bestowed on him by the Gujarati media.
He is even inspiring WhatsApp jokes and memes. “Pujara bats from 1 pm to 4 pm in Australia. Now don’t say those from Rajkot can’t do without a siesta” – this one spreading quick and fast on Gujarati groups. The photoshopped image of a giant rock being surrounded by Aussie close-in fielders is also trending on Twitter. The cynical chatter about run rate has stopped, for now. Pujara says it doesn’t matter. He is in the habit of getting caught between a giant rock and a hard place. But he has survived, he has a high pain threshold.
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