Cheteshwar Pujara: Melbourne victory the series-defining moment

“I feel that the victory in Melbourne was very important. Jinks (Rahane) batted really well in that game. After that win, the guys got a lot of confidence” says Cheteshwar Pujara.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s resilient batting display formed the cornerstone of India’s historic 2-1 series triumph in Australia.   -  Getty Images

Over the years, Cheteshwar Pujara has earned plaudits for his batting in the longest format of the game. He is flattered by the comparisons to Rahul Dravid for their similar approach to batting, but insists he is focused on the job at hand, which is to win matches for India with the willow. After another challenging but successful tour of Australia, the 33-year-old is elated that the hard work and determination shown by an inexperienced Indian team paid off, and is confident that India’s success Down Under will motivate the younger players to perform well in the forthcoming Test series against England, which begins in Chennai on February 5.

In an interview with Sportstar, India’s Test No. 3 takes us through his journey in Australia and the team’s mindset ahead of the return of international cricket to India.

India vs England in Tests Batting records: Most runs, most hundreds, best average and highest individual score  

Would you rate this as your toughest tour of Australia?

I would say that it was one of the toughest tours. It’s very difficult to rate the last tour (in 2018-19) and this one because they were different. I believe both were challenging, but this was more challenging because we were not playing with our full squad. There were so many injuries, so many players were missing. But it also gave opportunities to young players to play to their potential. It turned out very well for us in the end.

While some players had already featured in the Indian Premier League in September-December, the Australia tour was your first international outing following the lockdown. What were the initial challenges?

It is always tough when you are coming out of a lockdown. In the times of Covid-19, you haven’t played any competitive cricket for close to eight months, so it is never easy. I felt the Australian team came up with a very good game plan. They studied my batting, they saw all the videos from the last tour. It took me a bit of time to find my rhythm. It took me almost a couple of Test matches to figure out what I had to do, and let’s not forget, they were bowling well. They were not offering loose deliveries and sticking to the right line and length. So, as a batter, I did not think anything extra and was sticking to what I know and ultimately I was successful in the last two Test matches. So yeah, as a batter, it can be difficult to find your rhythm early on, but once you are in, you start playing your natural game.

Pujara and Rishabh Pant (left) walk off the field at lunch on day three of the third Test against Australia in Sydney on January 9. “...there were times when I felt that it was important to make him (Pant) cautious. Whenever I saw that he was getting carried away with the momentum, I told him to be a little more focused and play shots which are in his range rather than converting a good ball into a shot,” says Pujara.   -  Getty Images

 

After the first two Tests, what did you do differently to get your rhythm back?

Nothing different, but you start putting away the loose balls and slowly your concentration improves. So technically, I did not change too many things. It’s just the mental aspect where I had to make some changes. That, I think, helped me play better in the last two Tests.

India vs Australia: The come-from-behind series win in numbers  

You took a defensive approach while batting. Was that a deliberate move or just the need of the situation?

I feel that while facing quality bowling, there are situations when conditions are tough. If you look at the series, there was only one century from our team — which was by Ajinkya (Rahane). For the Australian team, only (Steve) Smith and (Marnus) Labuschagne scored centuries, so there were not many runs scored in the series and those were tough pitches to play on. And I am not talking about just one match; it was similar for the entire series.

Maybe Sydney was slightly easy to bat on compared to others. I felt it was important to understand the conditions, situations and bat accordingly. So there could be times when you find yourself playing a little shot and not getting enough runs, but that does not mean you will get out and give away your wicket. You are helping the team and there is a game plan — it’s not just that I need to play my shots, but it is about how important my wicket is. So you had to keep these things in mind and play accordingly.

India vs Australia: How did your favourite players fare in Border-Gavaskar Trophy?  

Pat Cummins troubled you initially. You took body blows, there were bruises, but you remained firm. How did you overcome the fear?

Initially he was bowling very well and I had to make some changes to my game. But I would say that the initial stages are always difficult, especially when you are coming from a long break. Cummins is the No. 1 Test bowler in the world and he was maintaining a good line and length. He was bowling at his peak. So, if I got out to a good delivery, I had to respect that and move on. That is what helped me perform better because I realised that I had to move on as early as possible.

Australian pacer Pat Cummins dismissed Pujara five times during the Border-Gavaskar Series. “Cummins is the No. 1 Test bowler in the world and he was maintaining a good line and length. He was bowling at his peak. So, if I got out to a good delivery, I had to respect that and move on,” says the India Test No. 3.   -  Getty Images

 

Not many thought India would clinch the series after the debacle in Adelaide. Once Virat Kohli went on paternity leave, how did the senior players like you, Rahane and Ravichandran Ashwin put the house in order? What were the suggestions for the junior players?

We spoke about believing in ourselves. We decided to take it as a three-match series and forget about the match which we had lost. It was also important to understand that if we won the next match — which was in Melbourne — the series would be levelled at 1-1 and all the pressure would be on the Australian team. That’s what happened... I felt that there was a lot of positiveness in the team. Yes, we were disappointed with the defeat in Adelaide, but no one was bogged down. We knew that we could still turn things around. The guys showed a lot of character. It was important to back all the young players and make them realise that they can contribute to the team’s success, and all of them did. The players performed very well with whatever opportunities they got.

India tour of Australia: Of quarantine, body blows and a grand comeback  

You and Rahane conversed a lot on the field during the entire series. How did you back him?

Mainly it was to ensure that the bowlers try and execute their game plans well. Some of the young bowlers were not able to find their rhythm, so it was important to make them understand what’s expected from them and also to guide them on how to maintain line and length in Australian conditions. I used to give Ajinkya some suggestions regarding field placements, and most of the time our bowling was up to the mark. As a group, we ended things pretty well.

What according to you was the turning point of the series?

I feel that the victory in Melbourne was very important. Jinks (Rahane) batted really well in that game. So that, I feel, was the series-defining moment. After that win, the guys got a lot of confidence and they started believing a bit more now that we had gained the upper hand. After that, we decided to stick to our process, which helped us.

You had a couple of vital partnerships with Rishabh Pant in Sydney and Brisbane. What was your advice for him?

Rishabh had a part [to play] in the Test series [win] in 2018-19 as well and he was familiar with the conditions. When I was batting with him, I did not have to tell him much. He is someone who likes to play his game. So I never stopped him from doing that, but there were times when I felt it was important to make him cautious. Whenever I saw that he was getting carried away with the momentum, I told him to be a little more focused and play shots which are in his range rather than converting a good ball into a shot. He handled his innings well and performed well in the last two Tests.

The Indian players celebrate after the match and series victory in Brisbane on January 19. The squad was beset with injuries, “but it also gave opportunities to young players to play to their potential,” says Pujara.   -  Getty Images

 

The team was inside the bubble for a long time. So how challenging was it to shrug off the disappointments and injury woes, and stay motivated?

Being inside the bubble, one has to get engaged in one activity or the other. I did yoga, prayers, and that helped me stay calm. There is some activity or the other throughout the day. Also, we had a team room where most of the guys used to spend time. It allowed us to bond a little more. It ultimately ended up being a positive part for our team. Bubble life is not easy for the guys who are constantly playing. Some guys were part of the IPL where they had to be part of the bubble for long. After that it was the Australia series, so it was not easy for the players to constantly be inside the bubble.

India vs Australia: Rishabh Pant's attacking form sparks bat vs gloves debate  

India plays England next in a four-match Test series. How do you plan to tackle a star-studded England bowling lineup?

England is a good side, there is no doubt about it. But we also have an advantage since it is our home conditions. Most of the guys have played in Chennai and Ahmedabad, so we will have our game plan, and I have faced (James) Anderson and (Stuart) Broad in India. Even Ben Stokes. Most of our batters — including Rohit (Sharma), Ajinkya, Virat — have faced their fast bowlers in India, so we know what to expect from them. Also, at the same time, we would rather focus on what we want to do as a team instead of focusing on what the (pitch) has to offer. If we stick to our game plan, we have a very good chance of winning this series. The young players are talented and the good thing is that we have recently won in Australia, so the confidence of the team is on the higher side. We would want to carry on from here.