In Cheteshwar Pujara’s story of runs more than ruins is a lesson for every aspiring cricketer – do the basics well, don’t compromise on work ethic, stay humble and grounded, and don’t obsess over the results once you are confident that you have followed the right process.
Gearing up to become the second Indian on this tour – after R Ashwin — to play his 50th Test match, Pujara spoke to the media on Sunday(July 30) evening at the team hotel, an interaction that typified the composure and calmness that he brings to the middle as well. Excerpts:
What are your thoughts ahead of your 50th Test?
It has been a wonderful journey so far. Playing the 50th Test match for the country will be a proud moment for me. When I started playing cricket, I thought that Test cricket was always something that I wanted to play. When I have an opportunity to represent the country for a 50th Test match, it will be a proud moment. The way things have shaped up so far, the career has been really good. There have been ups and downs but looking at the recent form, I am looking forward to playing in the 50th Test match and scoring some runs for the team.
“The first Test hundred (159) against New Zealand in Hyderabad (August 2012), then the 92 against Australia in the recent Test series (in Bangalore this March). It was a match-winning score and the entire series turned. And then I got a couple of double hundreds. When I score a double-hundred it is always a special feeling.”
How emotional a journey has this been? Could you talk us through a couple of what you think are key moments during this run?
The first time I represented the Indian team at the junior level, the Under-19, was against England in Visakhapatnam, I got a double-hundred. After that, I was selected for the Under-19 Indian team that played the World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2006, which is where everything began. I started performing well and I was Man of the Series. That is when I felt that I have the talent; if I can do it at the Under-19 level, I can definitely go and play for the Indian team. After that, I was part of the first-class team (Saurashtra) and scored some runs and I got into the (Test) team. 2010 was the most crucial year for me, when I made my Test debut. I still remember the first Test match because I wanted to play with legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag — many of them were part of the Indian team and to share the dressing room with them… I still remember those moments. Those are the times and those are the moments that have stood out. Apart from that, when we talk about the Test series, the recent series against Australia was the toughest. That victory was one of the best Test series I have been part of.
You have had your fair share of knee injuries – first in 2009, then again in 2011. How did you cope with those setbacks?
That was one of the most challenging times of my career. I was out for six months with a first knee injury and again in 2011, I got injured. It took six months again. So overall, I haven’t been able to play cricket for a year, which was really tough for me. Once you get injured, you need to start scoring runs again, you need to get that rhythm again as your concentration goes down. The injury was the toughest part of my career but now I have come out of it and am working really hard on my fitness so that I don’t catch injuries anymore. Again, you can’t guarantee anything but as long as you work hard on your fitness, the chances of getting injured are less.
And then there was the heartbreak of losing your place in the Test XI in early 2015, until you emphatically snatched it back that September, here in Sri Lanka. What kind of support did you get then?
When you’re playing for the Indian team, everyone wants you to perform and everyone did support me. There was time when I didn’t score many runs. But everyone was confident enough that I’d make a comeback. When I played my comeback Test, many players, after I scored runs, came and said ‘We knew that you will score these runs’. I was really happy to hear that. Overall, we have a very nice environment where we try and support each other, specially the way we’ve been playing in the last one and a half years. It has been a really good journey, because we enjoy our cricket, we try and support each other and we try and move forward and dominate Tests for a longer period of time.
Given that you only play one format for the country, how do you maintain your rhythm every time you return to Test cricket?
One thing is you always need to work hard. You always need to keep practising. I played some county games, you always need to play some first-class cricket so that you are in touch with the game and you are scoring some runs. As long as you are scoring some runs, whether it is club cricket or first-class cricket, you will always gain some confidence. Personally, I think playing as many matches as possible and keeping on practising is the key.
Are you the kind of player who sets targets for himself?
Actually, I don’t think too far ahead. I would just like to take one Test at a time, one innings at a time. When I’m moving into my 50th Test match, I don’t think I should be too emotional about it. The reason is, I have a responsibility and I would just take it as another Test match. I would like to win the Test match. I don’t know, going ahead, I don’t have any goals. As of now, I just would like to keep performing the way I’ve been and keep improving as a cricketer.
“My first away tour after making my debut, in 2011 when we went to South Africa, facing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel was the toughest part of my career. And I learnt and when I went there again in 2013, it was a different ball-game all together but yes, 2011 was tough.”
Is your father (Arvind, himself a former first-class cricketer) still your best and worst critic?
Yes, he has been (laughs). I would like to thank him that I have reached this stage. He is the one who has been coaching me since I was eight years old. At times, he has been very critical about my batting but now we have come to an understanding where we always speak and come to a conclusion. And he is not very strict anymore!
When you embarked on a string of away tours starting in December 2013 to South Africa, India had a very young side. Now with a lot of overseas tours coming up, there is a whole lot more experience in the ranks.
It will make a big difference because as a team, you want players who are experienced enough. When we first toured South Africa, New Zealand and England, we were a young team, we didn’t know what to expect from the opposition and sometimes we also didn’t know what our strengths were in such conditions. But now when we go back there again, we will have a clear game plan. Our bowlers will know which areas to bowl and even as a batting unit, we will be very confident and clear with our game plans. Having that experience of playing more Test matches will help us.
You had an average tour of England in 2014. With India slated to travel there next summer, do you feel like you have a point to prove?
I would definitely like to score runs but there won’t be any pressure this time as I have played some county cricket. Playing in England will always be challenging, the wickets are bowler-friendly but I would definitely like to score some runs. But I wouldn’t think that far ahead because we have a tour of South Africa after this series; the next away tour is South Africa and I would like to prepare for that.
Given the nature of the track or the quality of the playing surface, have you ever felt bored scoring runs?
Never! I am someone who always loves batting, it hardly matters to me the kind of bowlers I am facing or the kind of opposition we are playing against. When you are playing at the international level, when you are representing the country, you want to win each and every game and I personally never get bored of this game.