Like father, like son: The journey of Pujaras

As India’s No 3, Cheteshwar, gets set to play in his second WTC final, dad, Arvind, reflects on the bond the two share in a candid chat with The New Indian Express...
Pujara with his father Arvind, wife Puja Pabari and daughter Aditi during his 100th Test in February 2023.
Pujara with his father Arvind, wife Puja Pabari and daughter Aditi during his 100th Test in February 2023.

I was very proud that day,” says Arvind Pujara with a beaming smile as he settles down in the chair in the ground floor office room at his residence in Rajkot. Less than 36 hours ago, Chennai Super Kings had won their fifth IPL title a few hundred kilometres away in Ahmedabad. The buzz about the final and the triumph was yet to die down, not just for CSK fans, but for the entire cricketing fraternity.

Contrary to the high everyone was experiencing after MS Dhoni lifted the trophy, there is a sense of calmness in Pujara’s house — even his neighbourhood where people are quietly going about their everyday routine — a bit like Cheteshwar’s batting whenever he is up against the red ball. And ‘that day’ Arvind, the senior Pujara, referring to was February 17, 2023, where he, along with his family, watched his son walk out to play his 100th Test.

It comes as no surprise. After all, only 12 Indians had achieved the feat before Pujara. To be a part of an elite list that includes Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, and so on, is indeed a privilege. This is why, Arvind, who has been a part of Cheteshwar’s life at every step of the way, holds that day dear to his heart.

He was there at the beginning, bowling underarm to his son in the Railways ground at the Kothi Compound when his son was a preschooler to ensure that he was playing with a straight bat. When Cheteshwar needed a bat for a National Under-14 meet in 2000-01 (West Zone), Arvind went to the PE teacher at his school. After the teacher refused to lend the team bat, he went over his head to the principal to get permission. The list just goes on.

Arvind is a proud father. He always has been. Has he ever said that explicitly to his son? He breaks into a shy laugh. “No, no. I might not have said it, but the feeling is always there. Our relationship is such that he knows it too. There was no need to say it out loud, we both knew it all along,” says Arvind with a wide smile.

The joy and the pride is visible when he speaks about his son. The first time Arvind felt that about Cheteshwar’s cricket was when the latter smashed a triple century for  Saurashtra against Baroda in the U-14 game with the bat he had borrowed from school. “We always knew he was good at cricket and had the talent, but we didn’t know how good he was until then. There wasn’t a parameter as such. He went to Vadodara for the BCCI tournament, it was not some school championship, and scored a triple hundred at the age of 13 (he was 12). That is when I felt he could go a long way.”

While the ambition was always there, a former first-class cricketer himself, Arvind knew enough to put in the hard work and stay in the present. The two phrases that keep coming back through the conversation so much that you can see where the characteristics of Cheteswar’s batting come from.

There were other challenges as well for the Pujara family. Being a Railways employee, it was not easy for Arvind to provide all the necessary cricketing equipment for his son. His wife and Cheteshwar’s mother, the late Reema Pujara, took care of everything as the father and son focussed on cricket.

In fact, it was an unintended pursuit of Reema to get Arvind to look at some pictures of Cheteswar when he was about two and a half years old that triggered the father to get his son into the sport. “She wanted me to look at them, saying how good he looks in them. Somewhere he had found a bat and ball and he was posing with them. That was when I noticed that, unlike other kids who pose with their feet flat on the floor, he was on his toes. When the ball was coming towards him, his eyes were on the ball and the bat right below his sight. It was very surprising. In my family, my father, me, and my brother have all played cricket. That’s when something clicked inside and I told my wife that he could become a cricketer. She said 'you work hard with him if you feel so, let’s see.”

Reema did not stop just there, she was the one who bought a bat before repaying the shop in instalments when Cheteshwar needed it. She was the one who ensured he always had fruits and coconut water every day. Despite their financial struggles, Reema and Arvind ensured Cheteshwar had everything he needed to succeed not just in cricket, but also in life.

Arvind attributes the values and character Cheteshwar embodies to his wife. She used to tell him that it doesn’t matter if he became a great cricketer, but he always has to be a good human.

Over the years, the Pujara family went through several ups and downs, including the loss of Reema. But life has taught them to take the hardships in stride, put their head down and do the work to get back on top. No wonder that Cheteshwar loves Test cricket, and even compared the format to life in general whilst speaking at the BCCI felicitation ceremony in his 100th Test. “... it tests your temperament; there are so many similarities between life and Test cricket. If you can fight through the tough periods, you always come out on top,” he had said.

It would not be an understatement to say that he has lived by his words. Coming from a school of thought where ‘50s will not be enough, you have to make hundreds to make a name for yourself’ — his father used to tell him this constantly during his early years — he went through a period of almost four years without a Test hundred despite playing several match-winning knocks (2019-2022).

Arvind chuckles when asked about it. “I used to tell him, ‘It is okay, you have to play well and that you are doing. People who understand the game well know. If it isn’t happening today, it might happen tomorrow or next year.’ He was not out of form. The pandemic happened, he wasn’t getting match practice. Batting in Test cricket is like a yog (penance). It is not easy. If you don’t practice for it, the rhythm goes off. You have to understand that, give yourself time and not fight it too hard,” he says.

Cheteshwar did that when he was left out of the Test team in 2022. He went to England, piled on runs in County Cricket for Sussex and made his comeback a few months later. The century drought ended in December last year and now, he is set to play in his third ICC tournament final — 2006 U19 World Cup, 2021 World Test Championship and the 2023 edition of the same.

Meanwhile, life at the Pujara residence has changed a lot as well. From being a disciplinarian father, Arvind has become a lenient grandfather while Cheteshwar is now taking up the traits of his dad. And it has been a smooth transition. When he goes home, there is hardly any talk about cricket. It is all about spending time with his wife Puja Pabari and daughter Aditi.

“The role of father and grandfather is different. If you look at it, for me, it is a question of time and situation, that is the point. It was a different atmosphere back then and whatever happened, a small mistake would have cost us (in life and career). Now, she (granddaughter) can learn from her mistakes. She is still a kid and will learn the discipline naturally,” says Arvind, the happy granddad.

It is the situation they are in right now and the journey they have been through that prompted the father and son to start an academy in Rajkot and teach cricket to the next generation of youngsters for free. “We have no professional ambitions with it.  Today, whatever respect, money and recognition we have in the world is because of cricket. And knowing how difficult the sport is, it gave us so much that we have to give back.”

With 13 years of international cricket, the 35-year-old has seen and done almost everything there is to do in his career. He has been one of the mainstays of the Test team for a decade now, has hundreds against every team he has played except Afghanistan, has faced more deliveries than any current Indian cricketer, and so on.

As he is getting ready to take part in his second WTC final, Arvind wants him to play for the fans. “No one can give happiness to crores of people. You have that privilege. Cricket never gets old, people keep watching. His duty is to play for the country, fans and to make people happy. If you make runs, they are happy, help India win and they are happy. Personal achievements are there, but it all goes to the country and fans,” says Arvind with pride.

Throughout the conversation, there is a twinkle in his eyes every time he talks about his son’s achievements in life. The radiant glow on his face says it all. Ask him what was his proudest moment as a father, Arvind takes a minute. He looks down and composes himself before answering the question.

“The proudest moment more than anything else is that God has given me such a son. No matter how many thanks I say, it will not be enough. There is no prouder moment than that,” he says with the biggest smile. It makes one think about one Thirukkural verse, “To sire, what best requital can by grateful child be done? To make men say, ‘What merit gained the father such a son?”

Safe to say, both the father and son have lived by it.

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