The last time Cheteshwar Pujara travelled to Oceania for Tests, his average was just shy of 70. However, with that tour of New Zealand began a batting slump that continued till the England series. By the end of August, he was averaging a more earthly 49.26. A stint in county cricket followed, and with it came back the confidence of playing in away conditions. In a conversation with The Indian Express before leaving for Down Under, Pujara sounded positive his numbers will bounce back by the end of the tour. Excerpts.
You haven’t toured Australia with the Test team, but you are surely aware of the fact that India doesn’t have a good record there. And just last summer, Mitchell Johnson destroyed a few English reputations. Do both those factors weigh down upon you?
I have prepared well for the series over all, without keeping in mind a particular bowler or anything like that. We just need to be aware of and have clear plans on what we as a team are going to do. We can’t spend time thinking about what happened to England last summer or what Johnson did to their batsmen. A year has passed since then, and things may have changed by now.
In that series, Jonathan Trott had to withdraw midway citing psychological reasons. How did you react when something like that happens to a fellow number three batsman?
Yes, I was affected to the extent where I was curious to know what happened there or just what went wrong. But it is not fair on my part to comment on it, especially since not everything we get to hear or read in the media is absolutely true. Maybe on the field, things could have been very different from the way they were reported. And none of the reports made it clear whether Trott faced a mental issue or a technical one. So I haven’t bothered too much about it to be honest. And I am not one to believe everything I hear unless I hear it from the person himself.
Are you aware that you were averaging 58.92 before the England series and 49.26 after it?
Now I am surely aware! But on a serious note, I have learned to accept that your average is bound to fluctuate as long as you play cricket. It dropped because I didn’t have too many runs in England and New Zealand and it will rise again when I next score consistently for a period of time. I don’t think too many cricketers have maintained an average in the 60s and I am pretty glad that I managed it for a while and hopefully I can get there again. What is more important for me is that I set a benchmark for myself, like scoring a certain number of runs in a Test series. And if I manage to do that, my average will take care of itself.
Do stats and numbers matter to you?
No, not at all. I’m not one to constantly check my numbers. But you can’t avoid these numbers at times. Just the other day, I was watching a re-run of a Test in England and the first thing that flashed on the screen as I walked in to bat was my average. So I suppose that things like that keep you aware. But it doesn’t bother me much.
How do you deal with criticism? Especially when the critics doubt your temperament considering they can’t question your technique.
I am motivated by criticism, to be honest. I’m never hurt by it. Because I was taught very early in life that failure teaches you more than success ever can. So when I am not scoring runs, I am expecting criticism because I have already criticised myself for it. The idea is to challenge yourself before anybody else has an opportunity to. This is why nobody had to coax me to get a county stint in Derbyshire. I knew there was a problem and had already made up my mind to find solutions.
Why did you choose Derbyshire? Did the 81 you scored in the Derby practice game leading up to the Test series help make up your mind?
During that game in Derby, I interacted with them and I was also keenly aware of the wicket in the county. I had a few other options, but I also wanted to ensure that I get as many county games as possible. The county season was winding down and Derbyshire had at least three or four games left, so that made my decision easy.
What was it about the Derbyshire wicket that interested you?
It had something in it for the fast bowlers and I was desperate to play the quicks well in those conditions. Although only one match during my county stint was at Derby and two away from home, I learned a lot. Just before my final game, we had three or four days to practice in Derby and playing on that particular pitch really gave me clarity. I gained more experience to play in such conditions. English conditions.
Did you enjoy your time in the north of England?
Oh yes, thoroughly. The people at the county treated me very very well. And the dressing room atmosphere was great too. Over all, my time there was amazing. I was really satisfied with their set-up and their professional approach to the game. It helped me look at my game differently and I enjoyed that.
Two very interesting things happened during your short stint there. In the first game, against Surrey, you bowled an over of leg-spin. And in your final match, against Leicestershire at home, you were out handling the ball. Let’s begin with the leg-spin first. Fancy yourself as a part-timer?
(Laughs) I’ve actually started bowling more often now. In the last six months or so, I’ve bowled regularly in the nets, whether with the Indian team or back home in Rajkot. I try and bowl at least two overs a day and have become quite serious about my bowling. I don’t want to become an all-rounder or anything like that, but I want to be ready if ever there is a situation when the team needs someone to fill in for about four or five overs. Anyway, I’ve started something that I think it is shaping up well.
And ever been dismissed handling-the-ball before?
Never! Not once before in all my life. I didn’t even realise I was out actually. But I was, bizarre as it was. It occurred purely on instinct. The ball was trickling back on to the stumps and I wasn’t even sure if it would’ve hit or missed, but my instincts forced me to get rid of it, so I palmed it away. Then Leicestershire began appealing and I had no idea why. I’ll be a lot more careful now, that’s for sure.