Wearing the India colours, Cheteshwar Pujara has been on a few flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg.
With every journey, he has progressed. Be it the first-stumble or his present confident gait, Pujara’s growth as a batsman has been brightly evident.
In 2010-11, he had a meagre stint with the Test team and returned with scores of 19, 10 and 2. He also suffered the perception of being someone who impulsively hooks and pays the price. That tour was a clear blip for a batsman who has totted up 7693 first class runs averaging 63.57.
Subsequently, Pujara braved past a knee injury and established himself as a vital batsman in the Indisan ranks.
That confidence was evident when he led India ‘A’ in two four-day games against South Africa ‘A’ at Rustenburg and Pretoria, earlier this year. The Indians drew the series 1-1 and Pujara had scores of 137, 54 and 2, the last being a run-out.
Cut to the present…and Pujara did remarkably well in the nerve-wracking first Test at Johannesburg’s Wanderers Stadium with scores of 25 and 153. He looked assured in the first innings but a needless run-out snuffed that innings and later Virat Kohli admitted: 'I was the culprit in his dismissal.'
Silencing the critics
With an overall Test record of 16 games, 1,488 runs averaging 67.63, Pujara’s talent was never in doubt but the odd questions were raised about whether he could reveal the same Bradmanesque appetite overseas.
He has silenced those whispers at least for now with his maiden Test ton in a foreign nation. He also refused to bite the bait when Dale Steyn and company tried their best to get him pouched with a mistimed shot off a bouncer.
Was he conscious about his previous poor record in Tests in South Africa? 'Not really. I was a little cautious at the beginning. I was confident I could score runs in overseas condition because I have been here with the ‘A’ team and I have been to Australia and the United Kingdom too with the ‘A’ team. I have scored enough runs over there so there was no lack of confidence. It was just that I had to get a big one to prove myself,' said Pujara.
Soft-spoken off the field, Pujara though tends to make maximum noise with the bat on the pitch. 'When I score a hundred and am set, I try and play longer and achieve a big total for the team,' he said.
Staring at a fresh challenge at the Kingsmead Stadium here where the second Test will commence on Thursday, Pujara said that though India has moved on from the wringer at Johannesburg, he admitted it wasn’t easy.
'(Emotional recovery) was difficult because we felt that we had a very good chance to win the match but just one partnership (A.B. de Villiers and Faf du Plessis) in one particular session didn’t go our way.
'We have to forget what happened and focus on our plans after looking at the wicket,' Pujara said and added: 'We batted really well, we bowled really well and if we can repeat it, we have a good chance of winning this Test.' He also took a mild pot-shot at the Proteas saying that the host’s batting is a ‘bit weak.’
Whatever be the outcome at Durban, Pujara will have to cope with one constant — the inevitable comparisions with Rahul Dravid, the man he replaced.
But to be mentioned in the same breath, Pujara has to sporadically don the wicket-keeping gloves, snap up incredible catches in the slip, lead the team and above all, score a mountain of runs when it matters the most.
He has made a beginning but the journey is long.