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A talent for tomorrow

February 5, 2007

One week later, he was blowing out 13 candles on his birthday cake -- and he had found the time, in the interim, to score 138 against Mumbai.

The precocious lad then added to his collection of major knocks in different age-group tournaments conducted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India, BCCI. Outstanding among them were his 206 not out in an Under-17 tie against Maharashtra in 2003-04, and an undefeated 206 versus Mumbai in an Under-22 match in 2004-05.

But the innings that earned Pujara international headlines was his masterly 211 for India against England in an Under-19 'Test' at Jamshedpur in 2004-05. An astonished, even mesmerised, England media hailed Cheteshwar as a 'future star of Indian cricket'.

His reward was a berth, along with V R V Singh and R P Singh, in the Australia-bound flight for a six-week stay and training at Griffith University's Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, on the annual Border-Gavaskar scholarship. Unfortunately, his age turned ecstasy into agony: as per the rules, Griffith University does not allow a foreign ward below 18 to travel to the famed Australian cricket academy in Brisbane without a guardian.

It would have been natural, and only right, for any one of various organisations -- the BCCI, the Saurashtra Cricket Association and National Cricket Academy in Bangalore -- to have picked up the tab of his guardian, since his family could clearly not afford the expense.

However, none of these bodies -- all cash rich, all forever talking of what they want to do to develop the game in the country -- showed the slightest inclination, and Cheteshwar was left to nurse his hurt while Faiz Fazal of Vidarbha was sent as his replacement.

It is a measure of his toughness that he took the disappointment in his stride, and of his skill that he continued to perform magnificiently.

He was one of the stars for India in the Afro-Asia Cup, scoring 65 and 81 against Sri Lanka and Pakistan respectively in league matches and capping it with another 65 against Sri Lanka in the final -- without ever being dismissed, even once, in course of the competition.

His was one of the first names to be penciled in for the ICC Under-19 World Cup played in Colombo in Sri Lanka at the start of 2006. The event proved to be a watershed in his career. In all, he scored 349 runs at 116.33 from six innings, and won the Player of the Tournament award to boot. He launched India's campaign with 26 and 60 respectively in the two warm-up games against England and Australia respectively.

Pretty soon he was the cynosure of all eyes, leaving his mark in almost every game. Cheteshwar made a fine 60 not out and shared a first-wicket stand of 147 with Gaurav Dhiman, who hit a whirlwind 90, in India's opening encounter against Namibia.

He then made an attractive 47 not out against Scotland but failed versus Sri Lanka. He made up for that in the next game against the West Indies in the quarterfinals, missing his century by a whisker; Cheteshwar (97) and Dhiman (74) were involved in a first-wicket partnership that yielded 110 runs.

He was in his element in the semifinal against England, making an attacking 129 after being dropped on 1. He was a bit watchful to begin with, but once he settled, he went after the bowlers, scoring 21 of the 25 runs conceded by Huw Waters in the final over of India's innings.

Howver, it was an anticlimax of sorts when Cheteshwar and his in-form opening partner Dhiman failed to even open their accounts in the final, which the Pakistanis won hands down after bundling out India for a paltry 109.

Cheteshwar has neither forgotten this particular match nor forgiven himself for having let India down. He continues to blame himself for this particular failure -- a rare one for a consistent scorer like him.

After an unimpressive Ranji Trophy debut against Vidarbha at Rajkot in the last season, Cheteshwar bounced back, scoring a sumptuous 145 in a do-or-die battle for Saurashtra against Goa in his next match; the innings paved the way for Saurashtra's outright victory. He got to play a Duleep Trophy and a Deodhar Trophy match each, but without much success.

That blip apart, he remained the star performer for Saurashtra almost throughout this Ranji Trophy season -- a fact reflected in his selection among the 30 probables for the World Cup in the West Indies.

Chances are he will not make the final cut; indications, however, are that it will not be much longer before he earns the right to wear the India cap, in both forms of the game.

Clearly, say those who know, Indian cricket has found in Cheteshwar the talent to step in when the current greats get to their use-by date.

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Also read:

Cheteshwar Pujara 'I am a natural batsman'
Rahul Dravid What Dravid and others say about Pujara

Earlier Mission Tomorrow Specials:

  • Subramaniam Badrinath: Waiting for the call
  • Robin Uthappa: Runs resurrect Robin

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