Cheteshwar Pujara: You become even more determined once you are benched

Cheteshwar Pujara never celebrated any festival when he was young — his father wouldn’t allow him to burst crackers during Diwali or fly kites at Uttarayan lest he hurt himself. That discipline shows whenever he walks out to bat.

Cheteshwar Pujara says his family always looks forward to the overseas trips because here in India he can never walk out with them, especially in Rajkot.   -  Pic courtesy: Cheteshwar Pujara

In a quiet suburban neighbourhood in Rajkot, amidst the din of everyday life, live the Pujaras. Cheteshwar Pujara’s glory remains untouched by fame. He’s not a guy who prances around and has flashy cars or brawny guards shadowing his every step, much like his batting, where extravagant strokes and exaggerated celebrations are but an aberration.

Pujara realised early in life that success doesn’t come easy; the virtues of hard work, patience and politeness, therefore, are, by extension, as much a part of the No. 3 batsman under the helmet with the Indian emblem as they are of a virtuous son, loving husband and father to a doting daughter.

READ| Sanjay Manjrekar decodes batsman Pujara

Those three virtues were amply visible in the glint-eyed cricketer from Saurashtra as he padded up more than 7,000km from home to do what he does best — scoring a heap of runs, leading India to a historic Test series win in Australia.

And Cheteshwar Pujara is just getting started.

What does success in Australia mean to you personally?

It means a lot both to me personally and to us as a team. Before leaving for Australia, we had talked about winning a series overseas. We came close in England and South Africa, maybe not very close, but we felt that the final result could have gone our way. But the tour Down Under was where we played really well as a unit. As for me, I am someone who always believes in thorough preparation and my training was up to the mark before that series, which is why I was so successful.

Did a poor run of form in the early half of 2018 contribute to your omission from the first England Test?

Sometimes you have a phase when you don’t score too many runs, but the kind of contributions I have made in the past and the present speak for themselves. That said, selection is not something I can control. During the time I was out of the team, I focused on the controllables — my batting, fitness and fielding.

I wouldn’t say I had a bad 2018 because, in South Africa, I was batting really well. I was run out twice in the second Test in Centurion; obviously, I am not trying point fingers at someone, but when you play Test cricket, mistakes happen. That failure should not be counted, according to me. Overall, my track record in South Africa has been good, and even in the last Test of that series (Johannesburg), I scored 50 on one of the toughest wickets I have ever played on. That was the time when I was very confident about my batting; although the numbers said otherwise, I believe the Johannesburg fifty was as good as 150.

Before the start of the England series, I had a brief stint with Yorkshire, and during one of the matches (against Essex), we had the best of Yorkshire team — Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Adam Lyth — playing for us and we were still bowled out for 50. When you play in challenging conditions, especially in county cricket, mistakes are bound to happen. The pitches abroad are vastly different. You are used to certain bowlers, their pace and bounce which helps you score runs. It wasn’t like I was out of form because batting for Yorkshire, I was out to some good balls. I accepted that, but at the same time, I was mentally certain that whenever I get a chance in the England Test series, I will score runs and that’s what happened.

India veterans Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar knew who I was because my name used to come in the newspapers owing to the triple hundreds I was scoring, Pujara says.   -  PTI

 

How do you cope with getting dropped from the team?

You become even more determined once you are benched because I couldn’t find anything wrong with my ability. And whenever I am dropped, I try and look at the positives, what I’ve done in the past and how I can contribute to this team. Sometimes it’s even more disappointing when your team is losing. Sitting out, I knew it was our best chance at starting a five-match series on a winning note and not doing so in Edgbaston, despite reaching a dominant position, hurt me internally.

As a team, we knew that we didn’t do something right, so when I was recalled for the second Test (at Lord’s), I wanted to make sure we win the match and the series. But again, I was run out in the first innings and clean bowled in the second; that was unfortunate. But I never lost faith in myself because if you start doubting yourself under pressure, then it affects your footwork, temperament and every other aspect. It is important to be what you are instead of what you are not; that will help you excel.

There was a phase between 2014 and 2016 when runs were proving hard to come by. Did you make any significant changes to your game?

When you are playing against quality bowlers, the kind of approach you adopt matters a lot. Anil bhai (Kumble) explained to me after the West Indies series (in 2016) that there was nothing wrong with my batting. I just had to work on my intent. If your intent is right, then you can be on top of the bowler even when you are defending.

I realised that it just isn’t about scoring runs at a high strike rate, but about dominating the bowlers under pressure. Coming from someone of Anil bhai’s stature — he is the highest wicket-taker for India in Tests — that was the best advice I could have got at the time.

2014, in particular, was a tough period. I wasn’t very experienced at the time; my first trips to England and New Zealand weren’t very rewarding. But my track record suggests that while I may not fare well on my first visit to an overseas nation, I adjust my game and score runs when I go there next time. That was the time I was putting too much pressure on myself; I wanted to score a double hundred in England because I had scored one against them when they came to India (in 2012). I thought it’ll happen again, but it wasn’t easy.

How do you build an innings?

As a batsman, I try to look at the bigger picture and the ultimate result, which is always to win a Test match. But to do that, you need to figure out how you want your innings to progress and how you want to make things happen. In Ranchi, two years ago, in the third Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Australia had scored 451 in the first innings. We had to make sure we get some lead to put them under pressure. The target, therefore, was to first get to their total and then extend the lead. To do that, we needed partnerships and we were six down for 328. I remember putting on a 199-run stand with Wriddhiman Saha, who also got a hundred (117). It helped that we had batted together for RoI (Rest of India) in an Irani Trophy match against Gujarat and stitched together 316 for the fifth wicket. To put Australia under pressure, we needed to bat for four-five sessions and doing so on a pitch which was slightly on the slower side and offering assistance to the spinners wasn’t easy. But in such situations, it’s important to communicate with the partners and make them realise ‘this is what’ the team’s goal is.

When I am batting, I don’t look at the scorecard. I only look at it at the end of a session, or after stumps. Look, runs will come if I am at the crease long enough. In Tests, there will be days when you get to your 100 in 120-130 balls, but there will also be times when you manage only 80-odd after batting for more than 200 balls. You need to assess the situation and bat accordingly.

The Indian team with the 2010 Border-Gavaskar Trophy that it won thanks to an unbeaten 72 by Cheteshwar Pujara on debut.   -  K. Bhagya Prakash

 

Do you ever feel the urge to flaunt your skills, because clearly you have all the shots in the book?

I do get tempted sometimes, but if the team is three or four down for very few runs on the board, I can’t afford to play such shots. It is not about showing my game; it is about making sure the team wins the Test. So if the situation doesn’t require me to play extravagantly, I won’t. But having said that, I have gone out and expressed myself while batting with tailenders. If I am putting my wicket at risk and the team is not going to benefit from it, then it is not worth it.

You scored a hundred in the recently concluded Syed Mushtaq Ali Twenty20 tournament. Was there a point to prove to the Indian Premier League franchises?

It was about proving a point to myself more than anyone else that I can play the IPL, do well in white-ball cricket. You feel happy when you work hard and the results are in your favour. This is just the beginning. I still feel there is a lot to play for as far as limited-overs cricket is concerned. I am working on a few things, but Test cricket will always remain my priority.

Sometimes I feel I didn’t get enough opportunities. Whenever I have played the IPL, I didn’t play the whole season. I just featured in three or four games and then wasn’t part of the playing XI after that. It is important for a player to get a long run to be able to better understand what needs to be done to succeed in the T20 format. Now, with experience, I know how to pace my innings, but as a youngster, some more (T20) exposure on Indian pitches would have been nice. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but you just take it in stride and move on.

Does the popular perception of you being a ‘Test cricketer’ still bother you?

Nothing is permanent in cricket. Opinions change with each passing performance. If you hear what people have to say about me and my game now, especially after the hundred in Syed Mushtaq, you will notice they are saying, ‘Yes, he can play well in white ball cricket, too.’ See, I can’t bat like a Chris Gayle, David Warner or Andre Russell, who play at a strike rate of over 200. That said, there are still some good quality T20 players — other than the hard-hitters — who play proper cricketing shots; Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli being cases in point. I am a player in the same mould. If someone is a good T20 cricketer and wants to excel in Tests as well, it would require years of practice and you still can’t guarantee their success. But if you are a good red-ball player, then you can work hard and improve your performance in limited-overs cricket. Every individual has different strengths and one needs to stick to them.

What was your childhood like?

I loved hanging out with friends, but when it came to cricket, I was very serious because I knew what my goal was. Back in the day, coming up the ranks from a place like this (Rajkot) was not easy since there was no exposure for grade cricketers. I never celebrated any festival; my father wouldn’t allow me to burst crackers during Diwali or fly kites at Uttarayan lest I burn my hand or get a cut on my finger. He used to say, ‘You can't miss the nets because of such injuries.’ That said, I have gorged on all the festive delicacies and even used to sneak out of the house whenever my father was away for work every now and then my mother would allow me to spend just half an hour revelling in the celebrations. But this was all when I was 12-13 years old. Once I graduated to under-16, I left all that. I lost my mother at the age of 17. She was very confident that I’ll play for the country one day. She insisted that regardless of how successful I am, I should try and be a nice human being. I have imbibed the virtue of discipline from her.

Cheteshwar Pujara was the Man of the Series in India’s Test series victory Down Under.   -  Vijay Soneji

 

Have marriage and fatherhood changed you as a person?

I have learnt to change diapers (laughs) and I do have sleepless nights like other fathers. But it is a responsibility that we enjoy as parents. Once I got engaged to Puja, things changed because there was no female presence in our house following my mother’s demise. She now acts as a mediator between me and my dad. My father can be very strict at times, so when I am on a holiday, which seldom happens, she communicates with my father and lets him know that I need to switch off at some stage and try and make sure it’s not always about cricket. Likewise, when I am on tour, my father passes on tips about my routine via Puja.

Whenever I’m travelling abroad, Puja and dad watch me play and my father explains all the technicalities of the game to her. She knows a lot more about cricket now than she did when we got engaged. And I feel good sometimes when she takes an interest in my work. I would say my wife knows a lot more about the sport than an average cricket fan out there (smiles).

We always look forward to the overseas trips because here in India I can never walk out with my family, especially in Rajkot. In England, it is less crowded and I can go out for a walk with her or do grocery shopping too if I want. We love exploring our country as well, but the only issue is privacy. So yes, it is good to be away from home sometimes, but not for too long. My daughter didn’t travel with me to Australia this time because of the time difference... I always miss her, but technology makes things easier.

Coach Anil Kumble, after the West Indies series in 2016, told me there was nothing wrong with my batting and I just had to work on my intent, says Pujara.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

The current Indian Test team is filled with expressive characters. Does that make this dressing room more fun-loving than the previous ones?

I have played with some of the greats of Indian cricket... so the dressing room environment is great throughout, but I would say it is a little more relaxed now because the players have played enough cricket to realise that when you are in the dressing room, it is important to stay focused... That said, you need to have some banter around to vent all your anxieties before taking the field. It’s also because the current crop of players is very expressive, and it’s for everyone to see.

How were you welcomed into the Indian team on your debut?

Yes, all of them Rahul (Dravid), Sachin (Tendulkar), they were all very welcoming. They congratulated me, but the good thing about my selection was the number of runs I had scored in the domestic circuit before getting noticed. They knew who I was because my name used to come in the newspapers owing to the triple hundreds I was scoring... Even (Virender) Sehwag commented once that, ‘Who’s this guy who is hitting some many tons. I would like to meet him.’ They knew that I was very eager to learn from all the seniors and were aware that it was a transition that I had to go through to play international cricket. Their knowledge and guidance helped me immensely.