He might still have a fair way to go before cementing his spot down at No 3,but Cheteshwar Pujara certainly took some firm steps in that quest during India’s 2-0 series triumph against New Zealand. Here he tells The Indian Express about his detailed preparation prior to making his Test return,the confidence-boosting ‘A’ tour to the Caribbean and the experience of scoring a maiden Test tonnot to forget his over-enthusiastic well-wishers. Excerpts:
How important was the New Zealand series for you?
It was very important because there was a lot of expectation around me. I also had to prove to myself that I belonged at this level. I did taste brief success before getting injured. But the 18-month gap between my third and fourth Tests was enormous. I am really glad to have scored my maiden Test ton on my return.
How nervous were you going into this series?
I was not overly nervous. I knew after the tour to the West Indies with the India A team that I will get my chance soon.The way I batted in the Caribbean was an encouraging sign. So there was not much to be worried about. I had also made sure to get some match practice prior to the NZ series by playing one game for Saurashtra in the Buchi Babu Trophy.
How much of a confidence-booster was the A tour to Caribbean?
The conditions over there were challenging and it was an ideal situation for me to judge my form. Being the captain of the team also helped greatly as the role demanded extra responsibility. The pitches that we played on against the West Indies helped me strengthen various facets of my batting. I believe that my preparation during the IPL for that tour held me in great stead,and made me a more compact batsman.
What were the changes you made to your batting during the IPL?
The changes were not only technical but were centered more around understanding my batting better. I remember AB de Villiers explaining the many advantages of playing the ball as late as possible. Mark O’Donnell,Royal Challengers Bangalore’s batting coach,also had some advice about how I should keep my head still for as long as possible while facing each ball. That the secret was to keep my head as straight as possible at the point of delivery. I was having a slight problem with my back-lift and my father (Arvind),who is my coach,showed me various videos and pictures of my past knocks,which helped me regain my natural stance. My success is a result of being able to implement these tips.
Did you have to make any significant adjustment to bat at No.3?
I was told before the game that I will be batting one-drop but it is not a new position for me. Saurashtra’s batting has improved significantly in recent years. When I started out though,I would find myself facing the new ball very often despite coming in at Nos 5 and 6 mainly. So I didn’t have to worry about making any adjustments to bat at No.3. I have even opened in the past for my club team Indian Oil. And in the West Indies too,I invariably walked in to face the new-ball with the scores reading 10 for 3 or 30 for 3. When you have been around in first-class cricket for as long as I have,you do become quite adept at handling the second new-ball.
How did you cope with the whole hype surrounding you being Rahul Dravid’s replacement?
You can never replace guys like Rahul bhai and Laxman bhai. I have never thought about being anyone’s replacement.I never go out to bat thinking or aiming to achieve what Rahul bhai did. It’s too early to think along those lines,and I can’t even dream now of achieving what he did. He served the country for 16 long years and I have not even been part of the Indian team for 16 months yet. My immediate priority is to replicate my performances in the Ranji Trophy at the international level.
Tell us more about your maiden ton in Hyderabad. How did you celebrate it?
When I went to bat,the only thing I was focusing on was to tackle each ball. The enormity of the maiden hundred didn’t sink in till I reached the hotel that evening. Every cricketer dreams of scoring his first-ever Test century,and I had just achieved that feat. But I told myself that this was just my beginning. I was happy but far from being fully satisfied. There was no particular celebration. I just slept well. I wanted a big score. I didn’t even bother to check my phone that evening. Next morning,I found hundreds of missed calls and congratulatory messages. Funnily enough,some of those missed calls were recorded at the time I was still batting.
What about MS Dhoni’s gesture of handing you the series trophy?
He told me that as I have scored a hundred,I should hold the cup. It was a nice feeling.
Do you think the real challenge for you will start now?
Yes of course. We will be playing teams like England and Australia,who are far better sides. What will be important is to carry the confidence that I have gained against the Kiwis into those series.