There is something about touring Australia that brings out the best of a player. Cheteshwar Pujara who is enjoying perhaps the best time of his career is the best and latest example of that. There was so much talk about Virat Kohli before the tour Down Under but Pujara became the hottest topic out of the blue. He not only became the highest run-getter of the series but also the way he played was something that no one couldn't stop himself praising India's number 3 Test batsman who played more than a thousand balls in 4-match Test series. He became an overnight star in Australia.
After a successful tour, many players might have preferred rest but not Pujara who returned to guide Saurashtra to the Ranji Trophy final, only to be lost to Vidarbha in the final. In an exclusive chat with Times of India, the 31-year old spoke about the challenges playing in Australia, the importance of the Ranji Trophy and many more.
Excerpts from the interview:
Have your feats in Australia sunk in?
It was a special series for me personally as well as the team. All the players said that this is the most special overseas win. We have a young team and none of the team members had the experience of winning an overseas Test series. But we want to get better and stay at No.1. We don't want to get carried away.
When you landed in Australia, people were looking at Virat Kohli as the main batsman and suddenly you stood up and dominated the series...
Everything changed after the first innings (in Adelaide). Whenever you go for a big tour, preparation is important. I prepared very well. Then I just tried to execute my skills and I knew what the bowlers could do because I had been there in 2014. I had faced Lyon, Starc, and Hazlewood in 2014. Cummins was the only new addition to their bowling lineup. But I had faced him in India in 2017 too. I knew their strategies and what line and length they would bowl.
I just wanted to bat normally. We were in deep trouble in the first Test when we were 40 for 4. I thought something special is needed to win this Test and I knew that I just had to bat through the first two sessions and didn't think about anything else. And when we lost Ashwin, I thought that I would have to accelerate at some point since I was batting with tailenders. I was really pleased with the kind of shots that I played.
You played more positively...
The situation demanded that. When you are batting with the tail, you always have to play your shots. There is a perception about me that I don't play too many shots, but I try and not play them until the situation demands.
Did you make technical changes to your stance and grip?
Not my grip, but some changes to my stance and some other things. I don't want to talk about them because bowlers will prepare accordingly and plan.
Your father was unwell during the Australia series and was undergoing a heart procedure. How tough was it for you to focus?
Before the surgery, our family doctor told me not to worry about anything and to just focus on cricket. Dr. Patil was the guy who did his bypass five years ago. He assured me that there wouldn't be any complication in his procedure. My father too asked me to just focus on my game. I was lucky that my wife was there with him. She also told me to just focus on my game as we had an important game the next day (Sydney Test). I was confident that he will be fine. But when I was walking in to bat on day one, it was not easy. I was waiting for the end of the day so that I could quickly message my wife and check on him. I am glad I could still focus. Luckily, I am a tough cricketer mentally.
Can you tell us how tough it is to play in Australia?
They're very strong. They're well aware of all the conditions and their bowlers always have a very good plan to get the batsman out in their conditions. So, they're well-prepared and they know what they're doing. Even their crowd will always support them.
Even their media...
Yes ... everything. Even their media is always supporting their team. If you make any error, they always let the opponents know. So, as an Indian player, if there's something wrong, or even if there is a minor discussion in the team, and if their media person gets to know, then they'll always go behind that player. It's part of their strategy, which we understand. There's a little bit of sledging which is going on. But luckily, I'm someone who doesn't get affected. In fact, I get motivated when they try and sledge me.
Do you remember any instance when the Aussies tried to intimidate you?
There were many instances but I remember the first Test. Nathan Lyon and Tim Paine tried to sledge me. They almost felt that the game was over when we were 40 for four, they thought that we'll be bowled out for 150-160. And even later on, I think in the third or fourth Test, they were trying to sledge me but at the same time, they started laughing in the end. Lyon came and told me: 'Aren't you bored of batting now? You've scored so many runs.'
Is that Lyon remark the best sledge?
Yes. I never thought that he'll say such a thing. And then when we were playing against Australia in the third Test in Ranchi in 2017, one of the players came and told me 'Now if you don't get out, we'll have to ask for wheelchairs.' I was batting on 170-plus. That's the best sledge I remember from an Aussie player.
Josh Hazlewood said that yours was the most precious wicket for the Aussies, and not Kohli's. What's your reaction to that?
I wasn't following any of their comments. I got to know after the Test that he had said that. I had mixed feelings. Hazlewood probably said I'm a prized wicket because I was performing well. He had bowled against me even in India in 2017 and knew that getting me out was challenging. It was a special comment. But as a cricketer, you have mixed feelings because you also want your players to play well.
After your performance in Australia, where does all the talk about intent and strike rate go?
People have realized what's required to perform well in Test cricket. People started appreciating the way I was batting, not just the Indian team management. Everyone has realized that there are different methods of playing this format. And because of white ball cricket, there have been players who've been playing many shots ... they've been very aggressive. I still respect that. When talking about intent and strike rate was going on, I just kept believing in myself, in my ability. I actually don't get worried about what people are saying. Sometimes you just need to do the right thing for the team.
This mindset of batting long, how did you inculcate that from so early on in your career?
If I've won matches for any first-class team or the Indian team and contributed in a winning cause, you know that this is how games can be won, so you become even more confident. If you see Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, they have been very classical. Obviously, Tendulkar was a different player, he liked to dominate, but there have been other players who have played Test cricket the way it has been played. Even Tendulkar, when the situation demanded, has scored just 50 runs in 150 balls, so there is nothing wrong in that. You just need to understand what situation you are playing in and bat accordingly.
You are part of a side whose captain is very aggressive. You are someone who is very calm. Is there a risk of a personality clash?
Not at all. Ultimately, he (Kohli) also understands what is required to win. Many times I've given him suggestions and he has been more than willing to accept them. He might have a different personality but that's his nature and that is how he should be. There's nothing wrong in that. He can behave the way he wants to as long as he respects the game. He hasn't been disrespectful to anyone else. Sledging is something which he likes at times. And there is nothing wrong in that. He also respects my nature.
How do you react when you see guys like Rishabh Pant playing the shots he does?
I laugh about it. Sometimes I get worried and say 'what is he trying to do?' But over a period of time, I've realized that you still need to respect them and their style because Pant has come from white-ball cricket and we'll have to give him some time to understand that if you want to play Test cricket, yes, you have to be attacking, which is his natural game, but at the same time, understand what is the right time to attack and when he cannot.
Growing up, your dad was really strict with the way you played. Do you ever regret that being too technically correct has sometimes not helped you establish yourself in white-ball cricket?
Not at all. My father always used to tell me to play according to the merit of the ball. And it's not as if I wasn't allowed to play any lofted shots. But he made sure that if I played a lofted shot, I had to execute it in a manner where it goes over the top. It should not just pop up in the air where someone can take a catch even in a practice session. Not many people have seen my white-ball cricket. But the moment I play lofted shots, I always execute it in the manner where I get a four or a six. But in Test cricket, it is not required as you are taking extra risk and risking giving your wicket away.
Your father has often spoken about how flawlessly he has seen you bat in the nets. It's his wish that the world should see you bat like that. Would you say your performance in Australia fits the description that your father talks about?
Not completely. I have many more things to show the world. Obviously, I have been working hard on my game. I am still young and I am very sure that it will come at some point. What my father has been telling me has motivated me. It gives me a lot of confidence because sometimes you start doubting yourself. But my father is the one who has always had faith in me and he told me that the world hasn't seen you the way I have seen you. So don't doubt yourself. At some point I thought because he is my dad he keeps motivating me then I started hearing things from other big coaches and then I feel what my dad is saying could be right.
Speaking of technique, coach Ravi Shastri recently said that you were left out of the Birmingham Test in England because there was a slight problem with your stance, something that can happen if you are playing continuously in county cricket.
I don't discuss technical things much. The reason why I was not scoring many runs in county cricket was different. The kind of wickets I was playing on, if you look at the scorecard, the average score was 180- 200 and even other batsmen didn't score runs. There was one game where we had Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, and Adam Lyth, almost a Test line-up and we won despite getting bowled out for 50. County cricket is different especially when you play for Yorkshire up north in April and May. The conditions are so challenging that you might not get a 50 but a useful 30-40 could be crucial. There were times I also got bad decisions. If your time is not right people start thinking 'oh, he hasn't scored runs in county cricket.' But people are not there to watch what is happening over there. It is very easy to say things from a distance.
How has county cricket helped you? Do you feel other Indian batsmen should be encouraged to play in the county to improve their game?
County cricket has been really helpful for me personally. Now whether it should be encouraged, I don't know. I support it because if that's done, it will be very good, especially for our Test cricket. But when the IPL is going on most of our players are playing the tournament. And when IPL finishes it becomes difficult for players who are playing all formats because of workload issues. But if players who are just playing the Test format have time then I am sure they should go and participate in county cricket. Even white-ball specialists who aspire to play Tests should play in county cricket because it needs good technique to score consistently because the conditions that you play in are really challenging.
You came back from Australia and immediately joined the Saurashtra Ranji team. Do you see a player growing up with the kind of culture you have cultivated for yourself?
I see many young talented players with a lot of commitment to domestic cricket. The importance of Ranji Trophy might have decreased a bit because of the IPL but at the same time, I've seen many players who want to play Ranji, perform well, be recognized for the Indian team, whether it's red-ball cricket or white-ball cricket. A classic example is Mayank Agarwal and Vihari (Hanuma) who have come from Ranji and performed well at the international level.
I always look forward to playing for Saurashtra because of the team atmosphere. Also, because that is where I started playing cricket. I became a Test player just by playing for Saurashtra. Whenever I get an opportunity, I never miss it.
Will you inculcate the same values in your daughter as your dad inculcated in you?
It is a tough call. But I will be a little more balanced. I will be strict for sure. But at the same time, with all the knowledge, I can strike the right balance. I have always had this argument with my father that 'you don't allow me to celebrate any festival and if we have to go out, you don't allow me because you feel I have to rest'. Over a period of time, he realized that you have to switch off somewhere. You should be focused on the game but when there are no games, you need to have a hobby or play a different sport. Now I play badminton and TT. It is important to have the right balance and that is what I'll teach my daughter.
What's your view on the Dukes ball vs the SG Test vs the Kookaburra issue?
I think we should stick to the SG ball in India because in our domestic cricket we play with the SG ball and the player gets used to playing with this ball, whether he is a batsman or bowler. You know what it does with the new ball, with the old ball. So I don't think we should change at all. The debate was on the quality of the ball. The BCCI has communicated with SG and during the semifinals, we got a different quality of the ball. They worked on it and it is better now.
For the kind of pressure that a young cricketer goes through these days, Rahul Dravid wants them to have a back-up career. What is your take?
I completely agree. Now when you see that the young generation is well educated, even the young cricketers are well educated, not just in India, but overseas too. If you are educated, it helps you think better in this game and education is something that I always loved. I am not a graduate, but I want to do an MBA at some stage.
The World Test Championship will begin later this year. Do you think it will revive interest in Test cricket? How excited are you about this?
Not just me. I have spoken to other players and all of them are very excited. We have already started discussing the format and points system. We don't have all the details, but we have already discussed about the various possibilities. I am sure Test cricket will get a lot of importance going forward with all the boards thinking about the survival of Test cricket. That is the purest format of the game and it will survive. I have no doubt about it.
Should a player who plays only in Test cricket and does not play IPL get a higher contract?
I agree. I have read things and I am assuming that that is the way forward to promote Test cricket. But at the same time, I also feel that First Class cricket and Ranji Trophy should be given more importance financially. I don't know what should be the right structure, but players should get enough money even in domestic cricket because that is where Test cricketers are produced and if we can take good care of players playing in Ranji, we will produce more Test players.
Support from the wife?
When we got engaged, she (Puja) did not know anything about cricket. She didn't know who I was. Her knowledge of the game has improved a lot and my father and she can discuss it a lot now. As her knowledge has improved, she has become very supportive.
As a batsman, you should not have any thoughts. If you can have a blank mind, you can execute your skills better. Yoga has helped me to reach that stage where I'm thoughtless when I bat or even if I have thoughts, I ensure that they are positive.
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