You don’t need to be attractive to score runs — Pujara

"As far as I know, what matters is the number of runs you score and how those runs help the team’s cause. Your stance and technique don’t matter in the ultimate analysis. The scoreboard speaks for itself," says Cheteshwar Pujara.

Cheteshwar Pujara believes that his time will come.   -  DEREK ABRAHAM

Pujara values the hundred that he scored in the third Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo last year very highly. He likes to bat at No. 3, but is open to bat in any position.   -  AP

Pujara played his IPL debut match in 2010 (with Kolkata Knight Riders coach Dav Whatmore that year) but with injuries playing their part, he has figured in only 30 matches in all in the IPL between 2010 and 2014. Pujara believes that he has it in him to excel in all three formats.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

The city of Rajkot has an IPL franchise of its own, but Cheteshwar Pujara isn’t a part of the Gujarat Lions franchise. Pujara is striving hard to prove to the world that there’s more to him than just good, old-fashioned batting in flannels. He says he has worked hard on his game as far as limited-overs cricket is concerned. A spiritually-inclined person, he knows his time will come. In a heart-to-heart chat with Sportstar, the 28-year-old opens up on a range of topics…

Question: After all these years, your city finally has an IPL team, but you aren’t a part of it. What went wrong?

Answer: Well, that’s something I can’t do much about. I had a very good season as far as Twenty20 cricket is concerned. I scored good runs (232 in six innings) in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (the BCCI’s inter-state Twenty20 tournament). We (Saurashtra) lost out on a place in the Super League (main round) on net run-rate.

 

I was surprised with the improvement in my game. I was really hoping that one of the franchises would show interest in me. Things didn’t go according to plan. All I want to say is that I have been working hard on my game, especially 50-over cricket and 20-over cricket.

Yes, the one-day season didn’t go that well (169 runs in four innings in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the BCCI’s inter-state one-day tournament) but, overall, if you look at my List A record, I still average over 50 (54.12 to be precise).

My one-day and T20 game has improved, but maybe there is a perception (that I am only a good first-class or Test player). Say, if I start performing on a big stage like the IPL, then it will get highlighted. Then, people will probably start accepting the fact I can play well in the other formats too.

I have had my fair share of injuries during a couple of IPL seasons (in fact, Pujara has played only 30 matches across five seasons — 2010-2014). I was injured during IPL 2 (2009) and IPL 4 (2011). I have worked on my game, but I haven’t got enough opportunities. The focus has obviously been on Test cricket, but I have done my best. Selection is not in my hands, but I can say that I have done the hard work. I am still improving. It doesn’t matter if I am picked or not.

Why are you perceived as a Test specialist? Even a legend like V. V. S. Laxman had to battle this, but he got a fair run in ODI cricket (86 appearances). So, in many ways, this is history repeating itself…

Look, one doesn’t get enough exposure as far as one-dayers and T20s are concerned on the domestic circuit. This year, thanks to a change in the format, we played six to seven games in both tournaments. Earlier, it was a zonal affair with just four matches. And, Saurashtra is not a heavyweight in these formats. So, we don’t often qualify for the knockouts as consistently as we do in the Ranji Trophy.

Simply put, you can’t judge a player after four games. Moreover, even when it comes to ODI cricket, I have played only five matches. And, I am yet to play a Twenty20 International. I have done well at the India ‘A’ level too. So, I don’t really know where to prove myself.

This season, I played in the Goa Corporate League as well as the PSPB Trophy (for my employer, Indian Oil Corporation). I even scored a 60-ball hundred against Air India in one of the T20 games. I know I have improved. It’s about getting those opportunities and getting back into the limelight. I know this perception will change.

Has this perception got something to do with the flamboyance factor?

You don’t need to be attractive to score runs. As far as I know, what matters is the number of runs you score and how those runs help the team’s cause. Your stance and technique don’t matter in the ultimate analysis. The scoreboard speaks for itself. You don’t need to be flamboyant as long as you do the job.

 

Moreover, I bat at No. 3. I try and compare my situation with someone like Rahul Dravid (and what he did for India at that slot). Look at the others like Kane Williamson, Joe Root. They have a role to play. They don’t start their innings flashily. They take their time to settle in. I have a similar role to play. I can play that role in one-dayers and T20s, too.

I am not trying to compare myself with these players, but the fact is that our roles and styles are similar. Yes, I want to improve and get better and better, but I can’t change my game. I can’t become a Chris Gayle or a Virender Sehwag. I don’t think I need to make any major changes to my batting style.

Look at Virat Kohli. He scored all those runs in the World T20 by playing proper shots. It was a display of classical batting. So did Joe Root. Yes, there was power in their shots and they hit the ball hard whenever it was necessary to do so. The running between the wickets was also exceptional. I want to do the same.

Has it also got to do with the fact that people have seen you play Test cricket and not the other formats? I ask this because we have seen you hit whirlwind fifties and hundreds at the domestic and club level.

Yes, I think so. Look, the kind of responsibility I have in Test cricket is different. I can’t just go in and start playing my shots. We are a wicket down when I walk in. If you are batting at No. 3, you have to often deal with a crisis. You have to bat with responsibility. Yes, I have to play my shots, but I can do so only after settling in. I have to take my time. You can’t just go and start smashing the ball.

The thing is that people have watched me play only Test matches. And, the kind of knocks I play they’re different from the ones you’ll see in an ODI or a Twenty20. So, they have not seen me play limited-overs cricket on TV. And, if and when, I score a quick hundred in domestic cricket, they say, ‘Oh, he is the king of domestic cricket anyway’. That, I think, is an unfair assessment.

I have scored quick-fire hundreds in domestic cricket as well as in Australia and England. I have lost count of the number of times I have gone to these countries as a member of the Emerging Players and India ‘A’ teams (laughs). I have played with Gautam Gambhir, Parthiv Patel, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma on different trips. I have faced everyone from Mitchell Johnson to Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood over the years. I honestly don’t remember the years.

Can you recall five such whirlwind knocks which nobody got to see on TV?

The recent 60-ball hundred against Air India was a good knock. We were chasing 180 and I took my team home. I hit several fours and four sixes. In 2010, I scored 350 runs in four games for India ‘A’ against England ‘A’. I hit two hundreds. It was on green-tops in England. Ditto in Australia. I have even trained with the likes of Michael Clarke at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. This year, I got three fifties in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

Rahul Dravid hates being called The Wall. You were called ‘The Next Wall’ even before Dravid retired. Do you like that nickname? Even though it signifies solidity and reliability, it doesn’t convey flamboyance or flashiness…

I never like it when people compare me with Dravid. He is a great player who has scored more than 10,000 runs in two formats. I have played just three or four years of international cricket. I have my own identity. Yes, I do feel proud when I am compared with him. But the fact of the matter is that we have different techniques. I say this again: I feel proud when compared with him, but I honestly don’t like or enjoy it. I have a long, long way to go. I have so many things to achieve. I am still building my career. Yes, I have done well in Test cricket and I know I can do well in the other formats. I have had long chats with Rahul bhai and Sachin paaji (Tendulkar) about my game and they, too, believe I am doing the right things. Rahul bhai has told me I can do well in all formats. I don’t want to disclose the details of our conversations, but, yes, he thinks I am on the right track.

Where do you fit in the ODI team? Yes, there are issues with the form of Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh. The Indian team is not an all-powering unit. If that was the case, we would have won the World Cup and also beaten South Africa at home. There are chinks in the armour. That said, where do you think you can fit in that XI?

When it comes to ODI cricket, you have to be very flexible. You can’t say I want to bat at No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 or open the innings. From Virat (Kohli) to Rohit (Sharma), everyone has batted at various positions. It’s about experimenting. Once you start helping the team by doing well at a certain position, then that slot becomes yours. But, till then, everyone is figuring the best way out.

Let’s talk about the nature of ODI cricket. With the kind of impact Brendon McCullum, AB de Villiers and Kohli have had on this format in the last few years, 50-over cricket is about attacking cricket. Scores like 400 seem to be the order of the day. Naturally, players like Manish Pandey, Karun Nair and Shreyas Iyer have modelled their game to suit the demands. The selectors seem to be looking at these players. Where do you stand?

All I can say is that I will continue to work hard. Opportunities will come my way. I know that. Next year, say, if I am part of the IPL. And, if I start performing well, I will possibly feature in these discussions. Look at Ashish Nehra. Who would have expected him to make a comeback in such a brilliant fashion! But he did. Also, if I do well in Test cricket and accelerate whenever required, I will be considered for selection in limited-overs cricket. For now, I am focused on India’s tour of the West Indies and the dozen Test matches we are going to play at home this season.

Let’s talk about Kohli’s captaincy…

He is a very positive person. His work ethic is brilliant. He leads from the front when it comes to batting, fielding, fitness and practice sessions. Players get motivated just by seeing him go about his business. He inspires you. I don’t need to comment on his batting. He has obviously excelled in all formats.

How different is he from M.S. Dhoni?

I can’t figure out a difference because when it comes to Test cricket, many things remain the same. You have to have a packed slip cordon. You have to attack.

Would you say Kohli is more attacking?

No, Dhoni was also an attacking skipper. In fact, Virat used to offer his inputs to Dhoni when he was the vice-captain. All of us did that. Even now, we play as a unit. If I have to tell something to Virat, I go and convey it to him. Yes, it’s up to him to accept my inputs. Every player does this. Maybe, I will be able to spell out the differences in Virat’s approach after three or four years. Right now, I can’t.

You managed just 423 runs in eight Tests in England and Australia in the 2014-15 season. You got out bowled and leg-before quite a few times…

Overall, if you see, those things have been highlighted a lot. Yes, I struggled but everyone was having a rough time. We lost both series. The moment someone starts scoring in a different format at the international level, they can show they are back in form.

The only platform I have to get back into form is domestic cricket. And, when I do that, my runs are not highlighted as much. I scored a fifty in the Ranji quarterfinal and a hundred in the semifinal. Both were played on green-tops. Look, there was nothing awfully wrong with my technique in England and Australia. It wasn’t a major issue. In England, I scored 38 and 55 in the first Test. In the second Test, played at Lord’s, I got 28 and 43. Ben Stokes brought the ball in sharply in the first innings of that Test. Later in the series, I got out to spinners on a couple of occasions. Yes, I couldn’t capitalise on the starts. I was even given out wrongly one or two times. In Australia, I got a 73 in Adelaide, a 40-odd in Brisbane and a couple of 20s in Melbourne. Again, a decision didn’t go in my favour during one of the Tests.

What’s your take on India dishing out square turners for Test matches?

When you go abroad, you get green-tops. So, when we dish out spinning wickets, it’s fair. Apart from one Test match (against South Africa) where the ball turned square, it was poor application from the batsmen.

But even our batsmen struggled. There was just one hundred in the series…

We got starts. Even I got a 70-odd in the first Test. Yes, we missed out on big scores because the wickets were challenging. When the average total is 200, you don’t expect big individual scores. If we continue playing on such wickets, we will only get better as a batting unit.

On one side, you are striving hard to make your way into the ODI and T20 set-ups. And, on the other, you have youngsters like Shreyas Iyer, Karun Nair and K. L. Rahul knocking on the door. How are you dealing with these twin challenges?

I always play to perform. I don’t think of keeping someone at bay. I have played nearly 30 Test matches. You can’t take that experience away. My last century against Sri Lanka was special because the team needed it the most. It doesn’t matter what number I bat at. I am not denying the fact that I prefer batting at No. 3, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team.

 

Do you fancy opening in Tests because the M. Vijay-Shikhar Dhawan combine isn’t as productive as we’d like it to be?

I’ll speak to the team management. I’ll see what they expect of me.

Do you monitor the progress of youngsters like Shreyas Iyer?

I would like to congratulate him on a great season. When I played domestic cricket, legends always told me about consistency. It’s not mandatory that you will score the same amount of runs next season. So, I would say you have to keep scoring runs. Look, his style of play is very different. It will be important to see how he plays the next season.

Why do selectors want batsmen to go through the grind for three or four seasons? It’s not like that when it comes to bowlers, who usually get picked for India after just one season…

You have to allow players to mature. You can’t just start picking players after one good season. That way, you will have a new top run-getter every year. However, when it comes to bowlers, they are prone to injuries. So, I guess, the thinking is to give them a chance right away.

You are very spiritually inclined…

That is a part of my life. It doesn’t matter if I am playing or not. Even if I stop playing cricket, my spirituality will be a part of me. I pray for 15 to 20 minutes every day. I just make sure I do it once a day. I sit in my temple at home. I get a lot of positive energy. Spirituality has taught me that everything happens for a reason.

How do you fit into a dressing room full of ‘dudes’?

(Laughs) I still have hobbies. I like my music, my movies. I don’t dance much, but I do shake a leg sometimes.

You don’t drink, you don’t have a tattoo. How do you fit in?

That’s my choice. Look, I believe in accepting people as they are. My teammates love my company, but they never force me to drink or be with a girl. You enjoy the environment and the company. It’s not about what they are doing. Also, I don’t judge someone just because he is drinking. It’s a personal choice. Also, I have friends who don’t believe in God. That doesn’t mean that person won’t be my friend.

Are you planning to go to England for a county stint?

I have already put in a word. They sign players in advance. I was part of the IPL auction, so I didn’t commit to any county. Now, I am open to any county. That said, I am still not sure of my plans in June. We could have an India ‘A’ assignment.

The upcoming season is going to be an important one. We play more than a dozen Test matches…

I am looking forward to it. Our team is young. The most capped player, I guess, is Ishant Sharma. We are progressing. We are developing as a unit.

Let’s talk about your academy…

If you want to become a cricketer in a small town, you have to pay money for training. Even then, you may not get the best of facilities. What we have done is we have made a proper cricket ground. The outfield isn’t in proper shape, but we have a few wickets ready. The square is ready. The outfield, well, we are still developing it.

We bought eight acres of land. It’s not a fancy academy. We have a makeshift dressing room. It’s a work in progress. We have 25 to 30 trainees right from Under-14 to Under-23. Some of my Ranji teammates also train there. Four players are from the Saurashtra Under-23 team. We also have some players from the Saurashtra Under-16 team. We don’t charge a penny. We also provide them with free transportation because the academy is 15 km away from here.

My father takes care of the batting department. Saurashtra batsman Arpit Vasavada trains there. Kuldeep Sharma, a left-arm seamer who played for the India Under-19 team, trains the pacers. This is my way of giving back to the game. This is something I learnt from my father. He has never charged a penny for coaching kids. He has been doing it all his life.

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