India Test player Cheteshwar Pujara’s run-spree on the county circuit has bumped his first-class double hundred count to 16. Playing at Lord’s against Middlesex, Sussex’s stand-in skipper Pujara reached the milestone in 368 balls ( 498 minutes). Underlining his status as the most-prolific active first-class cricketer, his sequence of scores for Sussex before this game was 6, 201 not out, 109, 12, 203 and 170 not out.
On the all-time Top 10 list, he is now at No.5 along with batting greats like CB Fry, Jack Hobbs and Graeme Hick. Pujara’s consistency in reaching 200-plus scores is only second to Bradman’s. His double hundreds, at an average, show up after 25 first-class innings. Cricket’s undisputed GOAT, The Don, needed around 9 innings.
Among the active cricketers, Pujara is head and shoulders above his contemporaries. On the most first-class 200 list, Virat is second with 7, with Rohit Sharma (5) and Kane Williamson (5) further down the order – all staring up at the impossibility of dethroning the man with the unquenchable thirst for runs.
Just below Pujara on the all-time first class double hundred list is Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, Ranji to the world. He too played for Sussex. The two have a lot in common – a pioneer who gave Indian batting a template and the last of the kind holding on to those century-old batting principles.
Born more than a century apart, the two, one royalty and the other working class, had cricket thrust upon them. They both have their cricketing roots in Saurashtra. Ranji got his first lesson in cricket at a place where Pujara grew up.
Like all princes in the days of Raj, Ranji went to the school established for the young royals – Rajkot’s Rajkumar College. It was an institute that imparted English education and cricket lessons. British coaches were shipped in to teach the heirs of princely states the nuance of the game, the right conduct on the field and dressing room decorum.
In India for a long haul, the colonists were using the game to replace the native culture with the British way of life. Their liasoning with the locals would be smooth and profitable if they spoke a common language and similar sensibilities. Cricket was a tool of assimilation.
Ranji, at least on the pitch, proved to be a rebel. Like the Englishmen, he didn’t offer a straight bat to the ball aimed at him. As Neville Cardus wrote, as only he can: “The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! the straight ball was charmed away to the leg boundary. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”
Early in his life Pujara too got a cricket bat in his hand, and that would be his guiding light and walking stick for life. Unlike Ranji, the son of a Railway employee Pujara wasn’t privileged. He had his father, Arvind, as the coach, who had his own version of the MCC coaching manual. But like the British coaches who trained Ranji, Arvind too insisted that his son played the game the way it should be.
Despite being born in the same city where Ranji got his schooling, Pujara couldn’t even dream of going to the Raj Kumar college. It wasn’t something his father could afford. With palaces starting to get transformed into boutique hotels, Raj Kumar College would be the preferred education institute of the region’s well-heeled elite.
None of Pujara’s schools – Sadguru Bal Mandir, Lal Bahadur Shastri Primary School, Virani High School, Ramesh Bhai Chhaya Boys School – could come close to Raj Kumar College’s grandeur. Only one had a rudimentary play field. The one where Pujara spent his final academic years, was bang in the middle of a busy market, not far from the Fire Brigade building and one stinky naala. It was an obscure building with a small courtyard being its only open space.
What attracted the city’s best talent there was a cricket-crazy principal. “Since most young players would be busy playing tournaments, they would have attendance issues. At the end of the term, the principal and the PE teacher would magically show that the children had regularly attended school,” says Sr Pujara.
That basic perk was the reason the school with no cricket ground or a coaching programme went on to win the state inter-school tournament. Legend has it that Pujara won most games single-handedly.
With this basic support system, nowhere near the scale of Raj Kumar College or the Nawanagar Palace treasury, Pujara developed a game that took him to Ranji heights.
As if there was something in the air that remained suspended since the days of the Raj, Pujara, like Ranji, would develop a trait to work the straight ball on the pads to the leg side. With time, the famous Ranji glance would evolve. The basic wrist work remained the same but the batsmen could now maneuver the ball in a bigger arc. Pujara could work the ball from mid-on to fine-leg, the degree of his wrist tweak deciding the angle the ball would take.
The whip-cracking glance would be in the quiver of most sub-continent batsmen but Pujara had something extra. He had also retained in him cricket’s ancient wisdom. He could play time, a fast-disappearing trait that was no longer taught at cricket camps. These days during summer vacations, when the coaching centres get unusually flooded with impressionable kids, it’s IPL that is fresh on their minds. Playing time was so boring, leaving the ball was sacrilege, having more than one shot for a ball was a passport to franchise trials.
Despite his IPL misadventure, Pujara’s batting remained pristine. His 15 double hundreds point to an important aspect of his batting. He is no Sehwag. He can’t race to a 200 in no time. Pujara needs to pace his innings, wait for the loose ball, see through deadly spells and break the resolve of the opposition team.
Pujara knows the art of survival, he can bide his time, be the predator with an unblinking focus on his prey’s one moment of weakness or tiredness. Only those who can treat dropped catches, play-and-miss blips as minor mishaps and move on, can climb to Mt 200, 16 times. And the life lessons learnt during those walkathons that programme a batsman to go on a run-binge after getting dropped from the national team and even after making a successful comeback.