There are many misconceptions about Cheteshwar Pujara. That he doesn’t score quickly, is obsessed about technique and too serious in general. In a chat with Bharat Sundaresan, he breaks down those stereotypes. Excerpts:
How do you define your role in the team?
Being an experienced player, I make my own assessment of the wicket and the opposition bowling and plan accordingly. But there are situations like in the second innings at Indore where you have to go with the team’s gameplan.
At the end of the third day’s play, I was unbeaten on 1. Anil Kumble came up to me and said ‘you have been batting really well in this series. You’ve got 50s, 60s, 80s but you’ve missed out on a hundred. Tomorrow the team requires you to bat freely.’ He told me the team’s plan where we were looking to score at over four an over and declare after the lunch break. He said that ‘you have that capacity and ability to score quick runs. You have done it in domestic cricket. You are a very good batsman. Don’t think about anything, just go ahead and play your natural game.’ And he told me that you have an opportunity to score a hundred tomorrow. He made me believe.
One shot you played in Indore was you charged down the pitch and hit Trent Boult over mid-off.
I always knew I could play such shots. Luckily, I had that opportunity and the situation was such that I could showcase it. In the first innings, I couldn’t have done that because there was so much responsibility. This situation was similar to a one-dayer. The main thing the coach spoke to me about was intent, and then it was only about executing that shot which I did. It’s great to have someone like Mr Kumble who guides players like me when I start thinking about what others say.
When did you plan to charge at him?
I knew what Trent Boult was trying to do and the length he was operating at after observing him for an over. I knew if I wanted a boundary I had to charge and play that shot.
There was a lot of criticism that came your way after your form slipped after the tour of South Africa …
I never felt like I was out of form. I was always getting starts and scoring 30s and 40s. Couple of occasions I got wrong decisions, which you accept in international cricket. It’s part of the game. But when you are going through a bad phase and you get a bad decision, it hurts more. Overall, I was batting well. There was nothing wrong. I felt like there was a lot of analysis and discussion on what I was doing rather than focusing on the contributions I made to the team’s success. Like my innings at Lord’s. I only scored 27. It was a challenging wicket, but I saw through the first spell and laid the foundation. So there are these contributions that not many people will recognise. The issue was not getting a big score, especially a three-figure one.
Yes, you’re right. It wasn’t like you flopped but it was surprising to see you get a start and then fall to a soft dismissal like there was a loss of concentration.
I had got many big scores since starting in 2010. So before we began our overseas run, I put a lot of pressure on myself and took up the responsibility of scoring big runs. I did well in South Africa too. But then I feel I started worrying about why I wasn’t reaching the three-figure mark and not focusing on that particular series or innings. That was wrong on my part.
So was it like whenever you got a start you would start feeling the pressure that you have to turn this into a big one?
The thought in my mind was that ‘I need to score big’. So rather than focusing on the process, I was thinking about the result. See, those tours didn’t go the way I wanted them to go. But I learnt so much. I started accepting my failures. I accepted that I could be dropped too when it happened. But I knew I belonged to international cricket and my chance will come again. I understood that, as a cricketer, you will have an average series. But you need to accept it very quickly to move on and work on the next one. But I think there was more criticism than what I expected. There were times when I got out on 87 or 69, and people said he missed out on a double hundred. They would not even say he missed out on a hundred. That is what the expectation is from me. I am happy that people appreciate my long innings and that they expect a lot from me. It is, in a way, a good feeling and I think a compliment as well.
Dhoni has said Pujara should also enjoy his success at home whenever you would talk about aiming to score abroad. Did you start expecting more from yourself too?
I would certainly agree with that. While expectations were really high, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself too. Even Dhoni bhai told me during one of those tours that ‘you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You have scored a lot in India, which is obviously not easy if you see the others and also for that matter in South Africa’. He told me ‘keep playing the way you have been at home. You have been an important batsman for the Indian team and you will remain an important batsman’.
People always talk about you as being technically perfect. Do you agree with that assessment?
I would personally say that technique is over-rated in this game. I see the five most successful batsmen in the world and ask myself if they were technically perfect or not. I don’t know any cricketer who’s technically perfect. Best example is Rahul Dravid. And he’s been such a great guide for me. He told me ‘there is nothing wrong with your technique, so stop worrying about it’. I took that as a big compliment coming from him. He told me that ‘if you are playing at the international level for a long time, there will be a phase where you will keep getting out to an in-swinger for some time or spinners will keep dismissing you. It doesn’t mean your technique is at fault’.
There was a phase when you had an issue with the incoming ball. It would look like you are just pushing the bat tamely.
I think it was also a phase where I kept getting good balls. For example, Stuart Broad got me out a couple of times in England. He was trying to bowl out-swingers but off the wicket it was coming in. Even Rahul bhai told me that few deliveries that I got out to were really good and that ‘you have to give credit to the bowlers. Don’t put too much pressure and start thinking that you have a weakness or there is a problem’. I worked on it and overall on my batting and then that phase was over. I didn’t have to change anything in particular.
Before you spoke to Dravid, while growing up were you obsessed with technique?
There was a time where I was slightly, not obsessed, but was analysing a bit too much. But I realised very quickly that over analysis is not good for your game. I should thank Rahul bhai for that. He had a very similar attitude to batting. I spoke to him during the India A tours and at the NCA, and he taught me to find the right balance.
You always look so meticulous during practice sessions with a set routine.
During a series, I would just like to continue my form. I would rather not think too much. These days, that’s my motto. Sometimes the practice wickets are challenging, and I look to enjoy that challenge. I remember one such scenario clearly, the day before my comeback Test (at SSC in Colombo) and there was a lot of media attention about how I was getting beaten and getting out. But it was a wicket where other batsmen, too, were struggling. You shouldn’t judge your batting based on a practice wicket. As it turned out, we got a challenging wicket during the match and I was prepared for it.
Ravi Shastri said about you that, “mentally he’s as strong as anyone.”
I totally accept that statement. I remember him coming and telling me that in front of all the members. He said that aggression is not about showing it. It has to be inside. After that innings in Sri Lanka, he came and told the team members that ‘this is what I was talking about. You can defend good balls and still be aggressive’. He said this is the right example of being mentally strong. I was making a comeback, the situation was difficult and the kind of innings I played, he appreciated that.
Who was helping you through that difficult phase?
During that time, I was talking to Rahul bhai. Obviously I was also talking to my father who’s been my coach. But I would like to thank Rahul bhai for that hundred. Before that tour to Sri Lanka, I played a couple of matches for India A against Australia A in Chennai. He was the coach and I was the captain. He saw the way I was batting in the nets and said everything is perfect. He told me that ‘you have to keep your calm and keep preparing the way you’ve been. It’s just a matter of time. Your opportunity will come’. And he said ‘I know you will succeed’. And after the century, I texted and thanked him. I said, ‘I really appreciated the way you understood my psychology and guided me.’
We never see you emote much on the field but how do you react after that kind of a significant knock behind the scenes?
I would thank God in such moments. I have always had a lot of faith in such matters. If you are honest to yourself and honest to the game, the Almighty always helps you. And I have seen many examples like this in my life. That innings in Sri Lanka. And even on my debut when I failed in the first innings and Sachin paaji said that ‘don’t worry, you will get a second opportunity’. But he and Murali Vijay got a lot of runs. So I thought ‘Paaji is saying there will be a second opportunity but it doesn’t look like the Indian team will bat again’. But I did get my opportunity and was able to score 72. It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I have always had my family’s support. I would like to thank my father and wife. They also go through so many challenges when things don’t go well for me.
Has marriage helped you open up more?
I have a companion who understands sport. Initially obviously, she didn’t know much about cricket. She’s started coming to the ground, understanding the game and also what a professional cricketer requires. So she will never disturb me during my routine if she wants to go shopping, for a meal or a movie or anything. She understands that I have to go to the gym, so she will always respect my time. That is very important for an athlete. She will come up with points that really help. She will say that ‘when you were successful you did these things, why don’t you try them again’. It could be my practice, my routine. Or sometimes she will say that ‘you are not maintaining good routine or good sleeping habits’.
It’s almost like you are a throwback and will fit better in the dressing room of the Tendulkars and the Dravids.
I would say that I am not very expressive on the field. But I get along really well off the field with all the players. I’m also off the same age. So the thought process is similar. We like to help each other. There is a lot of competition, but at the same time we talk about the game and share our experiences. Obviously, my routine and all might match what those great players followed, but it is not like the modern players aren’t focused. They are very conscious when it comes to their game. I am a serious person so people think that I am only focused on the game. But off the field, I am a relaxed person and don’t bring cricket to my room.
Who do you hang out with in the team?
It’s not like I’m just sitting in the room. I do go out. I hang out with the players on overseas tours when we are on our own. I was hanging out with Vijay, Dhawan, Rahul and Ashwin on our recent tour. Or sometimes it’s Virat or Ajinkya or Rohit. I spend time with everyone.
Are you the centre of attention for pranks or do they leave you alone?
We always have a good time. So if they play a prank on me, I will give it back to them by playing a prank on them. It’s not that I am being targeted always.
You have grown a lush beard.why the beard?
I’m trying to get better with my outlook. The beards you see are because of all the heat and they want to ensure they don’t get tanned. That’s my logic anyway.
One of your teammate’s wife told us that she wants to shave his beard off..
Oh really? But as long as it is helping him play better, it hardly matters.
So what are your interests then?
I listen to music. I watch TV shows. Now I’m more into English TV shows. I used to watch Suits. Now I watch House of Cards and Game of Thrones. I play games on Playstation too like a lot of other players.
This whole thing about when people think of Pujara, people always expect you to save Tests for India. Is that on your bucket list?
I would say that I would prefer to win a Test for India rather than saving Tests for India. I have played innings where I have big scores and put them in a strong position to win, like the innings in Sri Lanka. But when it comes to that situation, I would play to save the game. But my attitude and goal is always to win a Test match for India.
You are the reference point for every IPL versus Test debate. Does not having an IPL contract bother you?
Sometimes, it does bother me. But I am improving and many players also feel that I am capable to play other formats. Time will tell. If you look at my record, the kind of innings I played during the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, not many people would have noticed it, but I was very happy with the way it went recently.
Can you explain intent and this thing about expressing yourself? It doesn’t mean going out and playing shots, right?
Expressing yourself is not about showing emotions, but it’s about playing to your strengths and being strong. It’s not just playing shots, but your natural game. Intent is about being positive. Not worrying too much about what is going to happen or what has happened in the past.
Has it always been easy being a team man over the last two years with all that you’ve had to go through in the last few years?
Honestly, it’s never easy to be a team man. But I’m an honest man and like to play cricket in the right sprit for it gives me maximum satisfaction. The team’s requirement comes first. What I enjoy hardly matters. What matters always is the scorecard and what I’ve contributed to it.