Father, son and a game

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The longer Cheteshwar Pujara stays away from home or the farther he ventures into the cricketing world, the flight back to his nest has always seemed shorter and faster. He has grown from a child batting prodigy who was a home sick mama's boy at heart, to a stubble-wearing seasoned professional who has replaced Rahul Dravd in the Test team. But time continues to fly for the 24-year-old when the destination is Rajkot – his comfort zone, his cocoon, his permanent address for peace.

Away from the adulation of scoring his first Test ton against New Zealand last month and the hype around his technique and temperament, home provides space and solitude for the batsman who provides hope in these uncertain times of transition in Indian cricket. But at a more personal level, it also helps him end the loneliness of the man who has given him company all his life—his emotional anchor, his coach since he was three, his 62-year-old father Arvind. Seven years ago, Cheteshwar had lost his mother to cancer. He missed his mother who would entertain his adolescent indulgences. Arvind stared at an empty retired life.

IPL riches and BCCI's hefty retainership saw the middle-class Pujaras climb the social ladder. But the heady swirl that accompanies fame and fortune didn't quite heal the mental scars left behind by the death of Cheteshwar's mother Reena. Their biggest regret, says Arvind, is that "someone who sacrificed her social life, her comforts and her cravings to see her son play for the country isn't around to see her dream come true or enjoy the fruits of the family's hard labour."

The excitable father is more prone to bouts of anguish than the restrained son but with time, both have reconciled with the death in the family. Cheteshwar took solace in his cricket to deal with the loss, Arvind in Cheteshwar's cricket.

Like any normal 20-plus son and a 60-plus father, their conversations are mostly monosyllabic but during a day spent with them, the reassurance that the two enjoy each other's company is heart-warming. That's not saying they don't have inconclusive discussions and non-negotiable disagreements. The value they have for the other's opinion is apparent as they constantly, almost involuntarily, search for the other's consent in every other exchange. There are differences of opinion but at the Pujara household, they get expressed by a smile, followed by shake of the head.

The lunch time coach-student talk is about 'the pull', a shot that got Cheteshwar out in the Tests a few weeks ago. With the bowlers tempting him to play the risky shot in subsequent innings, Arvind wants him to avoid the pull. The son feels he should go for the 'horizontal bat risky counter' since he knows that he can pull it off. A smile and shake of head by the coach ends the debate for now. Further deliberations on such technical issues are addressed at the nets.

Minutes later, it is the son and father dealing with an everyday prickly issue. Cheteshwar feels the well-crafted tall teak chairs around the dining table need to be changed as they are too heavy to be pushed around. Arvind, smiling and shaking his head, says they are fine. From mundane queries to career-changing calls, the father and son work as symbiotic sounding boards to each other, the kind both can't do without.

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About a year ago, Cheteshwar feared the unthinkable. On a flight back home, for a brief moment, he felt alone and abandoned like never in his life.

That treasured trip to Rajkot was turning excruciating. While undergoing post-knee surgery rehabilitation at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore, Cheteshwar had received an unsettling phone call from his family doctor. All alone at home one warm evening, his father had felt hot under the collar. The discomfort moved to the left shoulder and finally as Arvind recalls, his heart "started racing like an out of control speed car ready to explode". A cell phone at arm's length proved to be the life saver. It was a massive heart attack. The good doctor had weighed each word judiciously while conveying the bad news to the son in Bangalore. But the tone and timing of the call was a giveaway.

While packing his bags in a state of shock, sitting stunned at the airport lounge and gazing blankly at the dark world from his window seat in the sky, Cheteshwar's muddled mind couldn't understand the science of those stretching seconds. He wasn't recalling stories of the men he met and runs he had scored to regale his father like he always did, who like always, wouldn't be waiting for him at the airport this time. The words "heart attack" and "ICU", though small, had eaten up his entire mind space. Home never seemed so far, nor was it ever a dreaded destination. He tried to think positive to kill time but it was futile. Time was killing him.

"Though every eventuality flashed in front of me on that journey, I thought that my father was yet to see many things. He had seen my Test debut but he hadn't seen all my achievements. I am a believer and I had hope," says the man who carries his Gods on cricketing voyages. Even for the believer, keeping faith in the hour of anxiety must be tough. That's because Cheteshwar had lost his mother a year before his first big high, him finishing as the highest run-getter in the 2006 under-19 World Cup.

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For the Pujaras, the slow painful drag of 2011 was to pick up pace in 2012. The cuts made by the surgeon's knife to reach the son's torn ligament and father's blocked coronary arteries were to heal. The career, life-threatening fears were to fade away. The new year saw them move out of their old house—the one that had seen two deaths, Cheteshwar's mother and grandfather, and a heart attack.

The new sprawling home is a well-thought, tastefully designed modern structure with no amateur sloppiness or shade of a small-town architectural misadventure. Inside the understated white and brown exterior is a gymnasium, office space, living quarters for the help, a tennis court-sized backyard garden, a lift that takes you to Level 3 and an airy first-floor living room that opens into a lawn with tall ferns.

Most of the time these rooms are occupied by just one man who had spent most of his life in rented one-room set ups or shabbily maintained railway staff quarters meant for clerical staff. Though Arvind isn't comfortable leaving Rajkot, his mind chases his son to the cricket grounds around the world.

A gutsy Ranji Trophy wicket-keeper batsman in his playing days, he is broad shouldered and upright and his own cricketing tales feature names like Sunil Gavaskar and venues like Wankhede Stadium. "Once playing an away game against Mumbai, we were put into bat on a seaming track on the opening day. With not many willing to face the hostile local pacers, I was asked to put on the pads. I followed the captain's brief of seeing the new ball and stuck around for the first one hour. Must have scored about 30-odd runs but returned to a relieved dressing room after crossing a deeply obliged skipper Yajurvindra Singh who was at No. 3. I heard the Mumbai bowler getting a dressing down from Gavaskar for wasting the new ball," says the former Saurashtra cricketer remembering a career high point. Not surprisingly, the value of occupying the crease in the game's longer form got ingrained in the mind of India's very latest Test No. 3 quite early in life.

Unlike most retired first class cricketers, Pujara Sr doesn't have these modest highs playing on a constant loop during conversations. Or, rather more healthily, he doesn't even fall back on these flashbacks to calm his worrisome mind after the lights are put out at the end of the day. The cardiologists have advised him against it but the 'coach-cum-single parent' can't stop pondering over his son's cricket and at times missing his wife.

"I don't have the usual pre-game anxiety that parents have about their son scoring runs. I just think when will everything fall in place and the world get to see the quality batsmanship that I have seen several times at the nets. One that is pure in form and technique. Runs become secondary after that," he says.

And after a brief philosophical pause, he adds looking around, "also secondary are the add-ons that come with success". Despite the two cars parked outside, the television with the dimensions of a school blackboard and the well-equipped kitchen that's big enough to house a family, there is a certain emptiness in the house that saddens him.

"My wife Reena could never enjoy this big airy kitchen. But the food she cooked in our crammed kitchen tasted far better. This back-foot and front-foot play and technique, anybody can teach a child but my son's strength is the control he has over his mind. And that's my wife's contribution. I am a restless person, Cheteshwar's temperament comes from his mother. My role is overrated," he says.

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Pujara Sr repeatedly attempts to underplay his role and almost pleads that when the credits roll for the 'Making of Cheteshwar Pujara' story, Reena should be placed above him. After repeated snubs by selectors—even after scoring 300-plus knocks, Cheteshwar wasn't picked for the under-14 India squad—the father wanted the family to shift out of the state which didn't back its players. Arvind feared that since in the past he had fought a bitter legal battle with the long-serving cricket administrators to bring in change at the helm of Saurashtra cricket, his son would be victimised for no fault of his.

But the mother vetoed the suggestion. "My son is too talented to be ignored for long, he will play for India and no one can stop him," proved to the clinching statement in a long debate that finished late one night. That day, a sleepy 10-year-old Cheteshwar realised how much cricket mattered at home and how it was to be his life. The next morning, and subsequently for a decade, the father and son would turn up at the Railway cricket ground with Arvind keeping a close eye on every muscle movement of the padded-up child. The strict text-book coaching that saw Cheteshwar break several junior records won Arvind frequent praise for grooming a technically sound batsman.

Years later, the self-taught coach's cricket upbringing still gets applauded. After skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni surprisingly handed over the series-winning silverware to Cheteshwar at Bangalore early this month, the excited Test centurion returned home with a story flattering his father.

"After the net session on eve of the Hyderabad Test, I went to coach Duncan Fletcher to ask for his suggestions on technique. All he did was to ask me to congratulate my father. He is aware that my father has been my coach since early days. While I was batting, he called others to take a note of the distance between my legs while taking guard and how it helped me to get a fine balance, especially when I am pulling a short ball or even while driving," says the 24-year-old. This brings a smile to Arvind's face but that isn't his way of acknowledging the compliment. That's because he just remembered an amusing tale.

Some months ago at an unusually tepid training session, father and son agreed that a flaw had somehow crept into his batting. As has been a tradition for years, it was a situation that saw Arvind go into a shell.

"He doesn't say much during such times but you can see he is not happy. His mood is not right and he is thinking about the problem," says Cheteshwar.

A couple of days later, the old eyes spotted the problem. "His legs were closer to each other and that's why he was reaching for the ball and at times driving it uppishly. He didn't agree with me initially but did spread out his legs for one short session," says Arvind.

With the rhythm miraculously returning to his son's batting, the father fished out a measuring tape from his pocket and found that 19 inches was to be the ideal 'leg split'. He ran the tape over his son's bat and put a mark at 19 inches. With his son finally making it to the highly competitive batting line-up, where an inch here or there can push one back by miles, Arvind wasn't taking chances. The son was reassured as nothing had changed. Like it has been from the day he picked up a cricket bat, his father knew what was best for him and his game.

At 14, when he was at his first national-level junior camp in Mumbai, the coach had asked Cheteshwar to change his grip. "I was told that I held the bat too low. He asked me to move my grip up. With that change, I would have had to unlearn a lot," recalls the young batsman. From an STD booth on the footpath outside Cricket Club of India, a young boy in cricket whites was to make a desperate call to his father, who gave him a compromise formula. "Do what the coach has told you when he has his eyes on you. After that, switch back to your old grip," the father told the troubled son.

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The young boy is now a 6-ft man with mountains of runs behind him. At his first nets after the New Zealand series, Cheteshwar, with his time-tested old grip, is batting at a new training ground. He has moved out of Railway ground to a plot of land closer home. The ever-exploding city exodus hasn't reached this part of Rajkot Rural yet. A caretaker looks after the small store house for cricket equipment that Arvind has put together. A group of bowlers, all average players, bowl to Cheteshwar when he trains here.

After nets, Cheteshwar chats up with the net bowlers, all of whom are his friends. With a faint smile he says, "These guys are reluctant to come home as they are scared of my father." With an expression that goes well with a funny story, the self-made millionaire cricketer says when he's in Rajkot, he doesn't stay out beyond 10 p.m.

"I would have had more friends if I hung out more but after my mother's death I thought it was my responsibility to see that my father didn't feel lonely," he says.

Arvind too has got used to the additional duty of playing mother to his son. From telling the maid what to make for dinner to updating elderly aunts about Cheteshwar's age and sun sign, Arvind has his hands full. He too is keen that the family gets an additional member. Cheteshwar is quick to read the short ball heading his way. The 'leg split' is roughly 19 inches, as he shoulder-arms the question with a smile and a shake of the head.

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