Cheteshwar Pujara had a dream end to 2018 and started the new year in equally explosive manner in domestic cricket. When the focus prior to the Australia series had been Virat Kohli, it is Pujara that emerged well ahead of his skipper with three centuries to total 521 runs across the four matches. He, rightfully, earned the Man of the Series Award for his stupendous effort. To further signify Pujara’s superlative effort, he faced a jaw dropping 1258 balls for his 521 runs. He spoke about the exemplary tour of Australia, early career, series in England, comparisons with Rahul Dravid at Express Adda in Mumbai.
On being made to dance after winning the Australia series: “Winning in Australia was a special feeling. Rishabh came up with a dance and it wasn’t meant for me. I am not a good dancer and everyone made fun of me. For me important was that we won in Australia.”
On tour of Australia and confidence going in: “Whenever you play overseas, it is not easy because the conditions are different. But we were confident in a way that we played well in South Africa, played well in England. We didn’t win the series but there were performances where we felt that we can win overseas. And that confidence was there. Personally I didn’t think I can score that many runs. I always believe in preparation and for me it was about that than the number of centuries I want to score. It just happens. Whenever you’re well prepared and the situation arises, you know how to play in that situation. Before the series started, we were nervous but confident that we can win the series in Australia.”
On living in Mumbai to get more cricket: “It was a tough time in my life. When I came to Mumbai first, travelling 45 minutes by the local train was a nightmare for me. I came from a place where 45 minutes of travel was difficult to imagine. In Rajkot, Railway colony was two to five minutes from the ground. Eventually I got used to it in Mumbai. As a kid I was wondering if I was doing something wrong by carrying my kit bag as I would get pushed a lot. It was a tough time, as a young kid it taught me many lessons. It taught me that if I have to make it as a cricketer, I have to go through the hardships and ultimately all those hardships have paid off.”
On spiritual side: “As a kid I used to love playing video games. My mother didn’t allow it but she said if I pray for a little bit, I can play video games. She taught me to be spiritual. That is when it started. I still pray and that helps me even now in staying calm on the pitch.”
On frustration as young cricketer: “It was a tough time. But it taught me to lessons. When I was playing Ranji Trophy there were some players like Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman who I couldn’t replace. From my side I could only score runs – I hit double hundreds, and then triple hundreds. You start to learn early in Ranji Trophy and first class career.”
On patient batting: “I think in the third Test against South Africa, at Johannesburg, I made sure we don’t lose wickets early on. If I was to get beaten, I had to maintain distance. When I was playing 30-40 dot balls, there was pressure. But the most important thing when you’re playing Test cricket is to be patient. It is important to handle pressure and then capitalise later when bowlers tire down and pitch settles down. I think my first run was after 40 balls and I knew it would eventually help the team.”
On sledging in Australia: “Specially against Australia I’ve realised, start of series is always on a high. In the past, we lost first Test in Pune but won in Bengaluru. I think in third Test at Ranchi, O’Keefe said to me, ‘If you don’t get out now, we’ll have to ask for wheelchairs!’ Even here, there was bit of sledging but they know I don’t respond to the sledging. I knew I had to be focused and communicate with your partner, then they can’t break you.”
What is India’s strategy on sledging? “Sometimes you have sledge because you have to disturb them. There are some who do sledge but it is important to not cross a personal line. It should be strictly related to the game but the ultimate focus should be to win the Test or the series.”
Which is the nicest team in the world? “Overall England are the ones who don’t sledge much. There are some England seamers who do sledge but England are the nicest.”
On life in England: “It is much more peaceful in England because I can walk around with my wife and family. The conditions are challenging and county cricket has taught me. Even when the ball is old, it is tough to bat. It also teaches you to be independent. I started to cook a little bit of Indian food. I’m not a good cook but I’m trying to learn. Those are the things you learn when living alone. So when I’m in Rajkot, I can help Puja (wife) too. These are platforms which have to be taken.”
On being a vegetarian: “The number of players in the squad who are vegetarian are more. Cricketers have understood the importance of diet. There is a strict diet which all Indian players are following which helps our fitness. Non vegetarian is healthy too but you have to work extra to burn those calories.”
On meeting Kumar Sangakkara: “I had a chat with Kumar Sangakkara because he is someone who has played in the county and he was a standout cricketer for me. When I spoke to him, he said there are a few shots which I need to avoid and some to go after. I spoke to him for 20-30 minutes and whatever he suggested and I used in Rajkot. It is never easy to implement it at home before the England series. It helped me prepare for the series in better manner. He didn’t interfere much with my stance. He suggested how to be successful in England. ”
Importance of Australia series: “Things are changing after the series in Australia. I haven’t done anything new. This is something cricketers in the past used to do. Because of white ball cricket, players have started going for the shots. So someone like a Virender Sehwag cannot bat like me or Rahul Dravid. Everyone has a style of playing and that is up to the individual.”
On life away from the pitch: “I am good at table tennis. I challenge all my teammates and no one comes close to beating me. At the end of the day’s play, we play that. Or sometimes we play FIFA on Playstation. It is important to play something for half an hour or an hour. When in Rajkot, I go out for movies. R Ashwin is good at TT, Rishabh Pant is next and then Karun Nair I think is best. We’ve played ten games and he has won seven or eight. PUBG is something I haven’t tried. My wife has told me to not play much with daughter (Aditi) around.”
On social network: “For me it is important to stay focused. When you’re playing an important series, it is best to avoid the chatter and comments by others. I avoid reading newspapers also.”
Are you tempted by white ball cricket? Personally if I could, I would avoid white ball cricket. But we play plenty of white ball cricket and there is lots of T20 cricket. I don’t want to miss out on cricketing party. India is a cricket crazy country and I have support of everyone when I walk out to bat. My father told me that I’m not scoring for myself or the Indian cricket team but for the nation.
On domestic cricket: It is important to play domestic cricket because I’ve learnt everything from there. But it should be up to the players to decide given their workload. Domestic cricket is very important and there should be a lot of attention to it. Not many youngsters want to play Ranji but if you want to play for India, then you need to play in the Ranji Trophy.
On father’s cricketing journey: “In those days, there was no helmet or thigh pad. My father would tell me that you should leave the ball. His experience has helped me a lot. His advice is still with me and it is helping me in my career. He’s fine now and health is completely normal now.”
On Pujara as a person: “He is quiet but when he returns, everyone is on alert that he’s here and we have to maintain cleanliness. When he’s home, he’s home throughout. He just sits and relaxes and talks to my father-in-law. He spends time with our daughter and we spend good time,” says wife Puja. “Whenever my father has to say something about my technique, my shots or anything, my father will go to Puja and then I tell her to go tell him my response,” says Pujara in response.
On playing in the World Cup: “For me the next target is to win the Ranji Trophy semifinals. Then I move forward. My focus is to keep working and keep at it and then whether it comes, it comes. I would rather keep improving myself than worry about playing in the World Cup.”
The toughest bowler faced: “I remember facing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at their peak. I had a tough time and didn’t know what to do. Conditions were new to me and had no clue what to do. I came back home and worked on my backfoot and put in effort to learn. So next time we toured South Africa, that fear factor was gone.”
On staying away from glamour world: “Being a Test cricketer means there are not many endorsements. My father has taught me that I don’t play for myself but for this country. If endorsements come, I’ll take it. But if they don’t, I’ll not be bothered. What matters to me are the appreciation I get from my peers.”
On favourite batting partner: “I have had the fortune of playing with Tendulkar, Dravid, VVS Laxman and that experience of playing alongside will always stay with me. When we talk about current team, I enjoy my partnerships with Virat. Personally if I have a good partnership with our opener it helps put pressure on the opposition.”
On being referred to as New Wall of India team: “Rahul bhai is someone who I looked up to. I have learnt many things and I had opportunity to play for India A when he was the coach. I focus on what I do as a player and as a person so its not a fair comparison.”
On World Test Championship: “Winning in Australia means not just to Indians here and many of those in Australia too. So it was a great feeling to be part of history. World Test Championship is something I’m looking forward to it. We, as a team, have been talking about it. We want to win the Championship and do well in each series. We need to be on top of our games. Points are earned not just for match wins but also for series wins. All of us are looking forward to it.”
On matching Rahul Dravid’s record numbers: “He’s someone who is very down to Earth and very friendly. He is one of the simplest person. Despite scoring so many runs and things he’s achieved, he keeps things simple. Even as a coach, he will talk minimum because he understands coach’s psychology. Once he retired, he is still the same and his guidance has helped me immensely. Whenever I’ve gone through a tough time, he has helped me to focus on things.”
On winning the Australia series: “There was immense joy but I am someone who is modest about things. Victories are something you should enjoy but there is still lots to play for. It is important not to get carried away – respect opponents, respect the game. It’s important for me to not do something stupid.”
All three of his centuries varied in substance and had different background to each ton. The 123 runs in Adelaide on the opening day of the first Test came when India were reeling at 86/5 and steered the ship to 250 on the hottest day in the city in two decades. He returned to score an equally solid 71 in the second innings to help India along for the win.
He scored his second ton in the third Test at Melbourne which came in the aftermath of the defeat at Perth. Following the win, Australian bowlers were oozing confidence but they were ruthlessly blunted by Pujara, who batted for 481 minutes, faced 319 deliveries and copped several blows en route to his 106.
With the Border-Gavaskar series in the bag, Pujara scored a 193 in Sydney which was arguably his most fluent knock of the series where he highlighted ability to defend and go on the attack in equal measure.
The middle order batsman entered 2019 in equally glorious fashion to steer Saurashtra to the Ranji Trophy semifinals. Pujara scored an unbeaten 67 in the second innings against Uttar Pradesh while stitching a 136-run stand with fellow half-centurion Sheldon Jackson (73*) as Saurashtra completed the highest run-chase in a Ranji Trophy match, gunning down 372 runs at the Bharat Ratna Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee International Stadium in Lucknow. In the first innings, Pujara suffered a rare blip to be dismissed for just 11 runs. In the last-four, Saurashtra will face Karnataka while the other semifinal will see Kerala take on Vidarbha.