Pujara: Don’t need to make any changes to my game

"I am excited as this is my first Ranji final." Cheteshwar Pujara says as he settles into a chair, with his pads on, in the stands of the Maharashtra Cricket Association’s stadium at Gahunje. The grim on his otherwise calm face assures you that he is in for a long haul for the chat, just like the way he has built his reputation while at the crease.

"You are never a complete batsman in this game. As long as you are playing, you always need to learn new things and cricket is a game where no one is perfect," feels Pujara.   -  Prashant Nakwe

“I am excited as this is my first Ranji final.” Cheteshwar Pujara says as he settles into a chair, with his pads on, in the stands of the Maharashtra Cricket Association’s stadium at Gahunje. The grim on his otherwise calm face assures you that he is in for a long haul for the chat, just like the way he has built his reputation while at the crease.

You decide to make optimum use of the opportunity. You start hurling all the questions at him – from being labelled as a Test specialist to missing the India dressing room to being in a smaller city to his belief in religion. And Pujara doesn’t duck under any of them.

Excerpts:

Question: Is Pujara a complete batsman now?

Answer: You are never a complete batsman in this game. As long as you are playing, you always need to learn new things and cricket is a game where no one is perfect. You always strive to be perfect. You always look to get better in your game. I am the same. Probably, technique-wise, my strength is there. Technically, I am almost up to the mark. But in batting, you always learn new shots that can help you in different formats. Especially in T20s and one-dayers, the kind of innovative shots that are played, you have to be innovative and need to learn new shots. Even in Test cricket, we have seen the way Brendon McCullum played the penultimate innings of his Test career.

Things are changing. Everyone has a different way and we have different styles of cricketers like Virender Sehwag had a different game and Rahul Dravid had a different game. One has to figure out what is best for the individual. I am always learning this game.

Can you cite an example about the recent changes you have incorporated into your game or something that you need to add?

I don’t think I need to make any changes in my game apart from learning new things and reading the situations, especially in Test cricket. I want to learn to play a few more shots. If I want to accelerate or if I want to play different shots at different time, I will have those shots in my game. But overall, I don’t think there is much that I need to change. It is just about improving a few things.

You have on and off proven you have the batting to suit limited overs cricket. Still you are labelled as a Test specialist. Has cricket been unfair to you?

I think so because I have not got enough opportunities to prove myself in the shorter format of the game. If I have played more number of Tests or four-dayers, and if I perform there, they say I am performing there. But if you see the amount of List A games I have played and the kind of runs I have scored, no one can question that. It is just about not getting the exposure at the international level and probably even in the IPL.

I can say in the T20s, I have a better idea how to accelerate and what kind of shots I should be playing. I feel sometimes I was unlucky, but I am improving. Age is on my side. And with my game, I can definitely play the shorter format.

Do you think you have been tagged as a Test specialist due to perception or does it have anything to do with your fitness issues?

I don’t think there is any issue with my fitness. Yes, I agree I was injured in between, but it was the time when I could not play the game. That phase is over. Now, I am working really hard on my fitness. Overall, my agility has improved. My fielding has improved. I am working on my bowing as well. I think it is just the perception. With time, it will go. That is all I can say. I am working hard on improving wherever I can. Whenever I get the opportunity, I will prove myself. If you see the domestic T20s, the amount of runs and the strike rate with which I played, I was among the top-5 in the Mushtaq Ali Trophy. With time, it will change.

What does someone like you or Murali Vijay, who play only one format for India, have to do extra to play other formats?

You have to [work] a little extra. With the motivation part, I believe that whenever I play cricket, I don’t need motivation because I love this game; it is my passion. I don’t need anyone else to motivate me if I am not getting enough opportunities because motivation is something that comes from within. With love and passion, I don’t need any extra motivation to play this game.

But if you play all the formats of the game, it becomes slightly easier because you are playing at the international level. You get those kinds of bowlers to face. Whether it is ODIs or T20s, you are ultimately facing bowlers of high quality and the kind of practice you get with the Indian team, obviously, you cannot match with State teams or anywhere else because the standard is so high. It does make a difference.

In that respect the IPL miss is huge…

It is. Even during the nets, if you see, someone is a fast bowler who is playing continuously, he might not bowl in all the net sessions. But somewhere down the line, you get to face international bowlers even in the nets. It is useful for those who are part of the IPL squad.

R Ashwin recently said he enjoys bowling to you in the nets. What is it between the two of you?

The thing is, for bowlers, the way they bowl in the nets, they try match simulation. They need to know if they are bowling the right lengths. If I play according to merit like in a match, they know that this is a good ball. And if someone is trying to slog him, he will lose that confidence. He will not get to know whether it is a good ball or a bad ball. In the nets, it is always frustrating for the bowlers when someone hits you out of the park because you cannot do it always in a match. Especially in the Test format, you are not going to play so many lofted shots; you are not going to go very aggressively against spinners.

I take it as a match situation whenever I play in the nets and the kind of lines or lengths he tends to bowl. I play my natural game, basically. Whatever kind of shots I play in the match, I play similar shots in the nets so that he gets the idea whether it is a bad ball or if it is a good ball. Whenever he is working on something, if you are playing to the merit of the ball, as a bowler, you get to know this is what he is going to face in the game. He gets that idea.

When the Indian team is playing limited overs cricket, are you in touch with your mates?

You cannot discuss about the game as most of us are playing at the first-class level and we are pre-occupied with our State teams. We are in touch but we cannot discuss cricket all the time. We follow the games, we follow the scorecards but we do not get the opportunity to see the Indian team in action as we are travelling, playing, or we are doing something or the other. Even if we are training or practicing, we have limited time and we are using that to do our own things. With the scorecard, you cannot discuss the technical aspect of the game.

Do you feel like having missed out on something when you are not in the dressing room for ODIs or T20s?

When you are observing on TV, you cannot get to know much. But I have experienced it when I was part of the ODI team, as I have mentioned, the kind of practice you get, the quality of bowlers you face, the environment is such that you are always motivated. You are always trying to get better. And you are competing with the best. You miss that environment.

You were renowned for scoring those big double hundreds and triples. Why do they seem to be missing now?

(Laughs) I would say it is not very easy to score triple hundreds and double hundreds all the time, especially when you are playing on challenging wickets. On difficult tracks, your fifty is as good as a hundred and your hundred is as good as a double. So, you don’t expect a batsman to score double hundreds or triple hundreds all the time. At some point of time, you have to be realistic and look at the wickets you are playing on. The kind of innings I played against Sri Lanka in the third Test, the wicket was challenging. The entire team’s score was around 300. We were in a position we might not even have had 200 on the board. You look at the situation, and then decide whether it is a flat wicket, I am not able to score more than 100, then there has to be some questions. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with my game or concentration issues are there. Even in the [Ranji Trophy] semifinal against Assam, the game finished in three days and I was the only centurion in that game. But personally, I would love to score big runs and I can still do it. The way I batted in Sri Lanka, the way I played in the first-class games, the situation is such that if there is an opportunity to score a double hundred, I definitely will.

What did you learn from that innings in Sri Lanka?

The most important part was to contribute to the team’s success. The series was one-all and things could have either way once we were five down and Amit Mishra came in. That partnership was really crucial and it set up the entire game. If we were all out for 225 or 250, things could have been different. We were able to post somewhere around 300 and we were in a good position. I was under a lot of pressure initially because I was making my comeback. Even after we lost five wickets, things were such that I could not think what I had to do individually. I just wanted to build a partnership with whoever came in We knew the wicket would remain the same throughout as there was grass on it. We knew there would be help for fast bowlers. The best thing I learnt was building partnerships and staying in the present as I never thought what I had to do or if I had to score a 50 or a 100. I wanted to build partnerships and put up runs on the scoreboard for the team.

Would you rate that unbeaten 145 as your best innings?

I would say one of the best. I would not say No.1 as I have played many crucial innings at the international level. It is very difficult to figure out which is the No.1 innings. It will definitely be among the top five knocks.

Of late, there has been a lot of flexibility in the Test team batting line-up, whereas teams in the past have had fixed slots. Is a flexible line-up good for an individual?

I would love to bat at No. 3 as I have a fair idea how to go about building my innings. If I am batting at No. 3 every time, I know what kind of routine I should have. It is all about experience. Especially in Test cricket, I believe that something has to be fixed. Overall, if you see, it is fixed. Most of the times, I have batted at No. 3. There are situations, for example in Sri Lanka, we did not have an opener. Those times, you have to be flexible. Overall, I am happy with the way things are. Most of the times, I am batting at No. 3, Virat at 4 and Ajinkya at 5. Overall it is set but sometimes, depending on the situation, you have to be flexible.

How different is it going in as an opener and at No. 3? Sometimes we see No. 3 getting to face even before No. 2.

There is some difference because those situations are probably five or ten per cent in your entire career. The job of an opener is entirely different to a No. 3. There are similarities because you are facing the new ball, you are facing bowlers who are not tired. They are fresh, they want to get you out. So, there are similarities and there are still differences. If you are batting at No. 3 when the innings is over, you are not straightaway running and changing into your gears and walking into the field. You get some time.

A majority of Test matches are getting over on Day Three of Four nowadays. What would you attribute it to?

I’d say that overall, the strike rate has gone up. Especially the way Australia and NZ are playing. The runs are scored at more than four an over. You get scores like 370 in 65 overs. The amount of time left is more. If you compare Test matches, the amount of runs scored, run rate is around 3.5. If you are playing on challenging wickets, there are chances the match will get over in four days. There is nothing wrong and there has not been any wicket on which we have played which is unplayable. When we go abroad, we play on seaming wickets and the matches get over in four days. It will happen. On bowler-friendly wickets, there are chances of matches ending in four days.

Would Pujara like to play like McCullum or be happy with the way he is batting?

Probably in the shorter format of the game, not in Test matches as I know my game plans very well; I know how I have to play and the kind of the responsibility I have for the team and even the team management’s expectations on me. In Tests, I don’t have to change. Probably in the shorter formats of the game, yes. Definitely I cannot match the kind of shots McCullum plays. If I can gain something out of him, I would like to implement in my game.

As a batsman, who do you look up to?

When you are playing at international level, you would try and look up to players like AB de Villiers, the way Kane Williamson plays in Test matches, Joe Root, Brendon McCullum. Whoever are top scorers and whoever I feel are doing well in a certain format, I try and watch how they are doing it and how they prepare for it. When I was part of RCB I had an opportunity to interact with de Villiers. Whenever the opportunity arises, you try and interact with them, learn from them.

How has the interaction with de Villiers helped?

When I was part of RCB before India went to South Africa in 2013, I spoke with him. He said a few things about my technique – I won’t talk about it in detail – but I tried and they helped. It wasn’t necessarily about batting on South African pitches but overall.

Over the last decade, you have transformed from being referred to Chintu to Puji to Chintu bhai. How much has Cheteshwar Pujara changed?

I don’t think I have changed. I still like to be with my friends and family. Overall, my life has not changed much. With time, you learn new things. You hobby changes but as an individual nothing much has changed.

What are the pros and cons of spending most of your time in a small town like Rajkot?

If you are in a metro city, your relations are more with others. When you score, the kind of limelight you get, playing for big states, even in Ranji Trophy, if someone has scored a 100, it will be highlighted more than when you are playing for a smaller State. At the same time, when I am at home, I get my privacy, more time to practice. The convenience factor is also there. I can reach the ground in 20-25 minutes, which is hardly possible in metros.

How much does religion help you?

It does help. I’d say especially when you have to balance your mind. On the field, you have to take certain decisions even if the situation is not in your favour. How to stay calm, how to stay positive, especially on the field. And even off the field. In India, you see many want to interact with you, want to take photographs, autographs. Even the media. How you behave is really important. Nowadays, youngsters are learning. It is a responsibility of any sportsperson the way they behave. The young generation is watching you, trying to follow you. It is your behaviour that teaches so many things. When it comes to such things, it has helped me. It is not, though, something I fall back upon for every single thing. But when it comes to how to behave, how to say calm, how to stay positive, it has helped me.

What are your plans for April-May, now that the IPL opportunity is all but gone?

I am very positive about going back to play county cricket. Nothing has come yet. Once I finish the final, I will take a call. Irani Cup is also there.