Cheteshwar Pujara is known for his lack of dance skills, even plagued because he had two left feet on the Sydney Cricket Ground after India won their first test series in Australia last year. Place it on a cricket ground and the foot movements of Pujara are unparalleled. He even ‘dances’ the path with aplomb – usually to choke the spider or find an opening, but sometimes even to clear the boundary rope. Pujara’s attack is measured and tailor-made for red ball cricket. His solid defensive game, based on a homemade bottom-handed technique, has made him one of the best No3s in Test cricket.
But Pujara insists that he also has the shorter formats to play, where he has only played 5 ODIs and has yet to make his first appearance in T20Is. “I’ll keep trying,” says Pujara, in a conversation with Hindustan Times. “I won’t avoid playing white ball cricket at all.”
One of the main reasons why Pujara does not want to stop striving to be a player of all sizes is to avoid long periods of inactivity. After his career-best overseas show in Australia (521 runs in 4 Tests) that ended in January last year, Pujara had to wait until August for his next India assignment – the tour through the West Indies. In the meantime, he was reduced to a mere spectator during the 2-month spells of the IPL and the World Cup campaign of India.
This year will be no different. Pujara will be part of the upcoming test series in New Zealand. But because it is a T20 World Cup year, India is playing the next test series at the end of the year. So packing a cricket contract in the province is his best choice to make the competitive juices flow.
“That’s why I try to play domestic cricket, because I know where I stand,” he says. Playing cricket regularly also helps Pujara to prepare for tests. “I know what I have to work on before the tests in New Zealand. The challenges ahead are clear and what I have to do to succeed there. “
When intervals are dragging between series, Pujara keeps his game fresh by returning to the household routine. “Then it’s not just preparation for New Zealand. Sometimes there are things that you generally have to work on,” he says. “If you get fired, you’ll find that these are the things that you still have to work on.” As a batsman, you think everything will be fine if you keep scoring, but when you play a match and get out, even if it is after one hundred, there will be an error somewhere, or an area that you have to work on. “
Grinding the Ranji Trophy also involves playing at modest locations with make-shift, open-air changing rooms. How does that feel for a Test cricket player who has experienced thunderous applause for winning the toughest battles on famous terrains around the world?
“I don’t think there should be problems with the ego,” he says. “You can’t just keep practicing in the nets if you want to stay competitive.”
Pujara is exuberant in his praise for the standard of the domestic cricket of India. He says: “Our cricket is competitive. You keep encountering challenging fields. Nowadays, most teams prefer to play on results-oriented wickets. If you want results within four days, it’s not easy for batsmen. If you’re looking for 20 wickets in four days, the game sometimes ends in three days, so you usually play on challenging fields – a strange game that you can play well on. “
Pujara speaks from a position of authority. India’s test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, who played on test courts for Mumbai in the current Ranji season, started with an inning of 79, but was able to collect 30 runs in his last five innings. Rahane then played a warm-up match in New Zealand and immediately hit a hundred.
“Domestic cricket is not about pace. It is very similar to what I encountered in county cricket; you will only have two to three bowlers who continue to bow in that channel. They would not be very fast, their pace could be 120-125 but they can play bowling in the same area for a long time, “Pujara says. “Our spinners in domestic cricket are also better than any other team in international cricket. You do not get much loose delivery and have to work harder than what you have to do with international cricket, because even the fields are quite challenging. “
Pujara, however, refuses to let his ambitions to play cricket in short format die, including the IPL. He religiously records his name for the annual auction, but has not been chosen in the last five years. This year will be the sixth IPL season in which he did not participate. “I do not think so [not being picked] bothers me a lot. If I don’t get picked, so be it, “he says. “But I remain hopeful. The age is still on my side. We have the Saurashtra Premier League and I am trying to play there. Hopefully a franchise will notice and feel that I can help them. “
The field in Rajkot, the home of Pujara, is said to be the most battle-friendly in India. It was due to the fact that his international initiation was delayed, billed as a flat-track run machine. Likewise, he believes that people have a bias about his T20 ability. To bring his point home, Pujara talks about the 61-ball century he struck last year in the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy, and also how he changed gear in the Adelaide test when the team wanted to explain.
“Sometimes you need a little more support, where someone is told that they will get five to six games, regardless of the performance,” he says. “Then you know you don’t have to worry and express yourself, play the shots you know and build your game. That’s how you start performing.” More than anything, Pujara misses the opportunity to to grow as a cricket player that offers the IPL. “You work with the best when it comes to IPL,” he says. “You have the best trainers, the best support staff and you have to deal with some of the best bowlers. As a batsman there is much to be gained. “
T20 cricket was not on his agenda when he collected his first triple hundred at the U14 level. His father did not even allow him to play trench cricket, so his play of ‘playing in the V’ remained unaffected. Does he ever get the feeling that his foundations have not kept track of time?
“Not at all! To reach where I have and the way I played, I would say no. If you ask another cricket player, they’ll take it. Maybe not this generation, but when I started playing, I was aiming we always go to play Tests, “he says.” When I started playing the game, there wasn’t the kind of money that is there now. I always loved this game, and I would play even if there was no money was because I just love batting. I played club cricket for many teams in Rajkot and Mumbai until about five years ago, where I was not paid at all. “
Pujara, however, is pleased that the BCCI has awarded Grade A contracts to him and players of his peers – Rahane, Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin – who only play Tests. That retention, worth Rs 5 crore per year, helps make up for the lack of an IPL deal. “I welcome this gradation method,” he says, “one must ensure that it is continued. If only one-day cricket and T20s are financially rewarding, I don’t think the younger generation would want to play Test cricket. “
Faced with swing and seam in New Zealand
New Zealand is very similar to Australia in terms of pace and bounce. There will also be some lateral movement at a certain stage. The wind factor sometimes also plays a role. It is therefore only a question of acclimatizing to circumstances and situations.
Left arm threat from Boult and Wagner
Yes, they will be a challenge. But most of our players have played them in the past. You know what to expect from them, but at the same time you have to get used to playing those corners.
Most satisfactory test series
Abroad, the last tour through Australia (2018-19) was my best. It was one of the best series that I was part of. One of the best test wins I have experienced. You rarely have a series in which you score three hundred in four test competitions, and it’s not just about hundreds.
It is about winning contributions. If you can turn things around as a cricket player, it’s always a proud moment for you.
In India it is the series against Australia in 2017. We had lost the first test in Pune and then I scored 92 in Bangalore, where I had a collaboration with Ajinkya Rahane.
I think innings were the most crucial for me. Australia played very well against us. And to beat them from 0-1 was very difficult. that was the hardest series I was part of.
More day-night tests?
It is not a natural cricket. I don’t think there can be too many day-night tests. This game is played during the day and with the red ball. You know there will be some extra assistance for fast bowlers. As the game progresses, the field becomes calmer.
In a day-night game, the first session is usually easier to braid, and as dusk comes in, it becomes more difficult to face the fast bowler or sometimes a spinner. It’s just because of the light, it’s not really the circumstances.
It’s hard to see the ball, and it’s a different challenge all together. I don’t think it’s a normal challenge. Even if you look at it practically, there aren’t many places you can practice in the evening.