Monday, January 7, 2019

On Top of the World, Down Under

There was Sunil Gavaskar and he scored runs in tonnes. He was the first Non-Australian batsman to record centuries in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, all the test playing grounds in Australia, though on different tours. He toiled hard and India managed to pull back a test from Lillie and Co in 1978, thanks to Kapil Dev bowling with a 102F fever.

There was Sachin Tendulkar, the best batsman of his era with Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Saurav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag forming the greatest Indian batting line up of all times. They toiled to achieve a drawn series before they went down under in 2012, a cruel 4-0 drubbing. An era ended there.
Half Captain Virat Kohli scored 4 centuries and more runs than any overseas batsman in Australia on that 2014 tour. Yet, victory was elusive. 72 years, countless series, magnificent batting shows, then those "We just missed out an opportunity" moments galore and depressing heart burn moments for fans, Indian Cricket fans like me.
He was down but not 'out' with 201 runs from 6 innings during the 2014 series. He was getting those starts, grinding the bowlers down and then getting out, to an extremely good ball or a bad decision or just a freak unlucky mishap. And then he was out of the series in the final test. Cheteshwar Pujara has lived the last 4 years, branded as a flat track bully with serious technical shortcomings against moving ball outside India.
Nice guys don't finish last, always. They too can finish first. Dravid did that many a times but a series win Down under eluded him, even after his best ever efforts. If India had their best chances to win a test series in England and Australia, it was this time, everyone believed. But Pujara wasn't part of that belief. Kohli it had to be.

From the final test against Australia in 2014 series to the first test in England in 2018, Cheteshwar Pujara lived on the edge. In the "intent vs content" debate, Che had failed to bring revolution. He did try to show his intent and ended up with disastrous consequences. Then the third test in England brought the turnaround.
He understood Pujara had to bat like Pujara and not like someone else. Not like Kohli, not like Tendulkar and not even like Dravid. Not handsome, not flashy, not divine but just plain bloody grinding, like he did all life since he was 8 years old.
When he was failing, there was a pained smile on his face. When he was out, there was a determined smile on his face. When he is on top of the World Down Under today, there is a shy smile on his face.
Pujara isn't the kind to celebrate explosively. Even lifting his bat after a Daddy hundred is done in moderation. If we look back, Pujara has been more physical, more demonstrative on the field after taking a good catch or after the team has won than when he has reached a personal milestone.
Nice things somehow happen to nice guys even if they have to wait for it. Sometimes, the entire universe conspires to write such a fairy tale in real life. Those small things fall in place. In the form a slight adjustment in stance. In the form of a piece of sand paper. In the form of Fannie De Villiers. In the form of a misfiring KL Rahul and Murali Vijay Combo. In the form of a twisted ankle. In the form of India's best ever fast bowling unit coming together and such things.
And then the magic happened, obliterating the clouds of self doubt, shining through the rains and overcoming some determined tail vagging by the depleted Australian batting. Well, the important factor is that only the Aussie batting was depleted. The Australians were absolutely full strength in their bowling and every single run from that mountain of 521 will be cherished as long as Cricket will be played on earth.
What Kohli's men achieved today is conquering the last but one frontier. India now have only South Africa to register a test series win. What Dravid did for Ganguly's team, Pujara finally has done for Kohli's team, with a monumental achievement to boost. Four years of grind has given birth to the sweetest of the fruits and Pujara stands there, in the background, with the trademark shy smile as his boisterous teammates celebrate.
If perseverance can ever be measured, it will be in Pujara units.

Govind Raj Shenoy for DieHard Cricket Fans

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