A stray firecracker goes off somewhere in Rajkot. A phone line crackles in the heart of New Delhi. The speaker, Cheteshwar Pujara, stops mid sentence. The listener, the interviewer in this case, believes he has lost connection and cusses his luck. Cut. Redial. Unavailable. Drat.
It’s been two days since Diwali — the seemingly unending festival of smoke and noise and loss of human contact. Still, you expect that by now the merrymaking would have died down. Or at least for the cellular networks to have kicked back to life, especially when you have an appointment with India’s Test number three. Neither happens for the next 20 or so minutes, a period spent in the repetitive and meaningless superstition of removing and casting back a phone battery.
So when a call does sneak in and it’s Pujara at the other end, you’re thrilled that your phone was assembled in the nick of time and not-so-thrilled that you cannot for the life of you remember what train of thought had previously been stalled midway. Pujara does, however. Quite accurately.
“We were talking about the powers of concentration, weren’t we?” he says, chuckling at the irony but without so much as judging. “I was telling you about how important it is to focus on the job at hand. Out there in the middle of the field.” Or even out here in the middle of a telephone call, lest we forget again.
For India’s most technically assured batsman since Rahul Dravid, a 20-minute unforeseen break in an interview is nothing more than a short pause — the everyday equivalent of taking a short walk to square leg to adjust his helmet and gather his thoughts when a tearaway is frothing at his mouth. Then, with the barking bowler back at his mark, he returns to his crease and dead bats the next ball with poise, the cricketing equivalent of “so you were saying…”
But you know as well as he does that Pujara’s focus has been tested by challenges far steeper than cracker-infested phone calls and drat-worthy networks. For one, he played and excelled in the Wankhede Test against the West Indies last year where his presence was ignored for the first half of his innings (Sachin Tendulkar was batting in his final essay alongside him) and detested in the second (Tendulkar was back in the pavilion).
“I had never experienced anything like it before,” he says in all politeness. “It became really difficult for me to concentrate on anything at all. I mean, I have played in venues that pack more than 50,000 spectators in the past. But Mumbai that day was something else.” His innings of 113, his fifth Test ton (all scored after Tendulkar’s last three-digit mark, no less), was neatly divided into two halves. When Tendulkar was dismissed on 74, Pujara had scored 58 invisible runs. And post-Tendulkar, he carved out 55 more runs that no one wanted to see.
“Understandable, but not easy,” Pujara says. “Even when I was in my zone and scoring boundaries, you know, not really blocking the ball or anything, the crowd was screaming for me to get out. They didn’t want us to score too many runs so India and Sachin paaji could bat again. But through all of that, although very difficult to remember, I knew I had a job at hand. So I watched the ball harder than I ever have and I went into my zone.”
Zone. It’s a word Pujara uses often and uses casually, quite like you and I would say ‘and I went into my bathroom’. He pauses when asked about this very spiritual space that a sportsperson slips into when in complete control. But without so much as hemming and hawing, Pujara stabs at an explanation for us mere mortals.
“When you enter this zone, it is less about concentrating and more about forgetting, actually,” he says, hoping that he is getting his point across. Wait a minute, more about what?! So he offers to explain again. “When I get there, I forget about the crowd and the noise. And I also forget about the bowlers and their reputations. I forget everything, except the ball. At this point, everything happens on auto-pilot. My backlift, my strokes, my running between the wicket, everything is completely instinctive.”
And how rarely does he get into this space, this hallowed zone? “Frequently,” he replies, almost instantly. “Almost every time I cross 40. But sometimes as early as 25.”
Pujara scored 25 or more runs in each of his four innings in South Africa, immediately after the Wankhede Test. Exactly 25 in the first innings in Johannesburg, followed by a cracking 153 in the second. Then, 70 and 32 in Durban. But it was the hundred-and-a-half at the Wanderers that he remembers with most satisfaction, for reasons far more significant than the fact that it was his sixth Test hundred. For one, it was his first century outside India. Secondly, and a little more importantly, it remains his last century scored anywhere in the world to date.
“Really satisfying even when I look back at it,” he says. “To tackle the conditions and the best bowling attack in the world and score those sort of runs made me very happy with my technique. I always knew I could rely on it overseas, but for it to happen in the very first Test made me confident that I was doing the right thing.”
This, however, wasn’t Pujara’s first Test abroad. It wasn’t even his first tryst in South Africa with the national team. Back in 2010, with the Gambhirs, Sehwags, Dravids, Tendulkars and Laxmans very much a part of the Test eleven, Pujara was the first of the younger lot to pierce his way through. Twenty-two years old then, he got his chance in the second Test in Durban in place of a failing Suresh Raina and clotted a freely flowing hemorrhage by walking in at 56/4 in the second innings and giving the hero of the match, VVS Laxman, company till the end of day’s play. Eighty-one minutes, 10 runs.
“Because I had gone to South Africa before, much was expected from me. I was glad I could deliver in both Johannesburg and Durban,” Pujara, now 26, says, recalling tales from what has easily been his best overseas tour yet. “I was batting so well that my father (Arvind Pujara, a former first-class cricketer and his son’s still-functioning coach) believed that no one else but me could get me out.”
Famous last words? Maybe, for over the following tours of New Zealand and England, especially England, he very much did.
Quite like the seventeenth century puritan Thomas Boston’s Four States of Man (able to sin, not able not to sin, able not to sin, unable to sin), every cricketer, amateur or professional, believes in the two states of batting. Form and no form. For example, Pujara averaged 70 in South Africa. Form. And then he averaged 15 in New Zealand. No form. The Saurashtra batsman, however, is convinced that he had stumbled upon a third state while in England, a state where he felt that he was in form while not particularly being in it.
“I never really felt I was batting badly or the bowlers were troubling me very much, to be honest,” he says, a curious statement from a man who didn’t once cross his zone-threshold of 25 (24, 2, 0, 17, 4, 11) in the last three Tests. “Let me explain. I scored two fifties in the practice games and then again got to fifty in the first Test at Trent Bridge. Now that is universally considered as being in form. But what I am trying to say is that even in Lord’s, or Southampton and Manchester for that matter, when the runs didn’t reflect my form, I felt very much in it.”
So why is that, I ask. “Lots of factors really. Luck being one of them,” he says, presumably shrugging at the other end of the line. “There have been times in my career when I didn’t feel in good nick and ended up scoring a lot of runs. This was the same in theory, but just the opposite in terms of runs. I was getting starts and leaving the ball well. But somehow I would find a way to get out. I even spoke to Duncan Fletcher and Rahul bhai (Dravid) about it, about the fact that I was feeling good and finding my range but not scoring runs. They couldn’t spot an error in my technique either.”
Sure. That technique, whose infallibility has been methodically crafted and worked upon by his father since Pujara was three, is hard to question. So much so that he swears by it just days before embarking upon his first visit with the Test side to Australia, a country that terminated plenty of Indian (following the 4-0 thrashing) and English (following the 5-0 scoreline) careers over the past couple of summers.
“I have scored runs in Australia on A tours,” he says, before adding what only a man with his technique can ever utter. “I’m pretty sure that what happened in England, not scoring big runs for an entire tour, is just a once-in-a-career thing.”
With the West Indies’ pull-out resulting in the cancellation of only three Tests that were to be played at home this year, Pujara is about to jump straight from the frying pan of England into the fire of Australia, with no international matches in between (he did, however, represent both Derbyshire and West Zone in first-class cricket). There, over the month long Test tour Down Under next month, several stiff challenges await him and the Indian batting order. Furious pitches, an even more furious Mitchell Johnson and a most furious home crowd. But the only fury that has a restless Pujara working on solutions back home in Rajkot is the one that nestles between his two ears.
“It is important to switch off at the end of a day’s play, something I couldn’t do in England and something I am really looking forward to doing in Australia,” he says. “When on tour, and especially when you’re not in form, your evenings slip away very quickly worrying. Instead of approaching each new day with a clean slate, you end up putting a lot more pressure on yourself by wasting your evenings in this zone you go into.”
Zone? Really? “Yes,” says Pujara, setting forth on an explanation. “This is also a zone because you can’t switch off mentally. The only difference between the two zones being that this is a bad one. Mainly because…” Bang!
Another cracker explodes in Rajkot, another crackle through the phone line in New Delhi. This time, though, no redials are connected.
The smoke and noise of Diwali has won, albeit temporarily. For, rest assured that the next time Pujara gets at the other end of that line — maybe a day or a week or a month from now — he’ll surely remember to complete his sentence.
The pros and cons of unswitchoffable focus, you see.