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By Suresh Menon
We love current players to resemble past players; we love hanging such names as Gavaskar II or Botham III around their necks. This is part of our efforts to pigeonhole people; it is convenient to think of players as being part of a continuum. Thus, Ranji begat Worrell begat Vishwanath begat Azharuddin begat Laxman. It is also a journalistic device, as in every generation it answers a key question, as in, who after Ganguly? Or who is the natural successor to Kumble?
For years after the retirement of Don Bradman, promising Aussie cricketers were painted with the same brush as the great man. Many found the public’s enthusiasm a matter of great pressure. Ian Craig, Norman O’Neill and some others fell short of full potential simply because of the albatross around their necks. Perhaps Doug Walters alone had a record decent enough, but even he might have been a different player without the nimbus of Bradman over his head. In any case, he did plug one of the few holes left untended by Bradman, becoming the first batsman to make a century and a double century in the same Test match.
And now it is happening all over again. Cheteswar Pujara has been impressive, successful and shown a maturity well beyond his years. Would he like to be known as Rahul Dravid II or Cheteswar Pujara I? We must look with indulgence at the enthusiasm to anoint him the former for that is the nature of sporting hero worship. Pushing a current player into the gallery of past greats is a wonderful parlour game.
Either such a media-driven image is impossible to live up to or it limits the player’s choices. Pujara’s approach to the game is certainly Dravidian (the man, not the race), based on patience, an understanding of the angles in the field and a refusal to be drawn into unnecessary conflict. In that famous cricketing cliché, he looks the part. And Dravid had the generosity to say that he himself didn’t look the part all those years ago till he had played more Tests.
As often happens in these cases, one of the commentators (I think it was Mike Atherton) discovered how readily Pujara had adopted the Dravid method – imitating his gestures and manner of speaking. Indian cricket is full of faux-Gavaskars, faux-Dravids, faux-Sehwags at various levels. This is not surprising. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery; it is a tactical tool too, bringing the younger player closer to absorbing the essence of the older.
The Ahmedabad Test was startling for the obvious Dravidisation of Pujara. On the first day when he remained unbeaten on 98, the focus was on the man who made a century, Virender Sehwag. On the second day when he topped that with a double century, it was the comeback of Yuvraj Singh that was the talking point. It was ever thus with Dravid. When he made a 180 in a Test, it was topped by a 281 by his colleague; when he made his highest one-day international score, another colleague won the Man of the Match for going beyond that.
Again, in Ahmedabad, when the team needed an opening batsman, it was Pujara who stepped in, much like Dravid used to do, on one occasion, putting on 410 with Sehwag, and more recently, carrying his bat through an innings at the Oval and returning ten minutes later to commence the second innings after India followed on.
Dravid didn’t mind. Neither will Pujara.
Teams are built around the strong and steady; India is fortunate to have found in Pujara someone around whom the post-Tendulkar generation will be constructed. The load-bearing pillar.
He probably welcomes the comparisons with Dravid, for clearly that great player is his hero. The number three slot in a Test team is one of the most crucial. An early wicket means becoming a virtual opener; a late one means many overs spent concentrating off the field, followed by a change in the job description: from stemming the rot defensively, you are required to get aggressive and carry the fight.
It made Dravid one of the finest at that position in the history of the game. Up there with Don Bradman and Ricky Ponting. Before Dravid made it his own, there was no Indian who fit into that slot automatically. And now, before we have had a proper chance to mourn Dravid, here is Pujara. This is what makes cricket special.