Ever since he made his debut against Australia at Bengaluru in 2010, Cheteshwar Pujara has been an integral part of Team India. Having built his game in the old-school way, Pujara has made the No 3 slot his own over the past decade. The second match of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Delhi will be the 100th Test for the 35-year-old. For a batsman who averages 54.08, and has lost only one of the six series he has played against Australia, Pujara took time out from his preparations in Rajkot last week to speak to the Indian Express for an exclusive chat. Excerpts from the interview:
You are on the cusp of your 100th Test. How big is the moment for you?
It is definitely a great moment, but it is just another match for me to learn and grow as a player. As a cricketer, you always try and improve and it is something I always try and do. Even now, there have been changes in my game, there have been some improvements. I’ve still been enjoying the phase of still knowing about my batting and getting better. Probably this is the best time of my cricketing career where I have enough experience and at the same time I’m able to explore a lot more in my batting. So it has been a great journey so far and it is a special feeling to be able to play 100 Tests. There is no doubt about that. But for me it is about each and every Test match, playing one match at a time and trying to focus on the series because it is not just about my 100th Test, but also about making sure the Indian team qualifies for the World Test Championship final.
A great practice session to kickstart the tour! pic.twitter.com/pTKaVf6qdS
— Cheteshwar Pujara (@cheteshwar1) February 3, 2023
You made your debut in 2010. What do you remember the most from it?
Well it was a dream-come-true for me. As a child I always dreamt of playing for the Indian team and when I got the opportunity, it was a special feeling. At the same time, I was a little disappointed the way I got dismissed in the first innings. And when I was walking in to bat in the second innings, I still remember being nervous. I was tense and didn’t know how the future would pan out. At that time there were so many thoughts going through my mind…being a young cricketer, who hadn’t played a lot of international games before that, I was a bit nervous and anxious. But after that knock of 72, I got a lot of confidence. It made me believe I belong at this level, I realised I can do well even at international level.
Before that Test you already had a big reputation, and how was it to walk into a star-studded squad?
The good part was I’d met a few of the senior players even before I joined the team. I’d met Rahul (Dravid) bhai during one of the Ranji games and at NCA. I’d met Sachin paaji during one of the matches somewhere. I knew some of them personally and they also knew there is a young budding cricketer who is doing well at first-class level. So there was a bit of comfort which was there because I’d met some of them at the NCA or played with them. Even Gauti (Gambhir) bhai and I had played an India A game. So I was quite familiar with them. But walking into that dressing room was a special feeling because there were a lot of legends in the team and probably the best team one can ask for. Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, MS Dhoni, Zaheer Khan, there were so many experienced players who were part of the squad. And I was in a comfort zone only because they made me feel a part of them. Whenever I needed guidance, they always came up and spoke to me. They were very helpful and being part of the set-up enabled me to learn so much. Early in your career, you would like to know how they prepare and what one can do in this situation. And I definitely learnt a lot from them.
That series was the start of your rivalry with Australia. What makes the Border-Gavaskar Trophy so special?
I feel Australia is always a tough team to beat and they are competitive on the field across any conditions. Also there is a lot of verbal talk going around when you play against them and they will always come at you. To come over it, you need to be mentally tough and you need to have that fighting attitude. And when the opposition is good, you would like to be better than them and I’m always motivated to perform. I don’t need extra motivation when you are playing, but when a team like Australia is always after you and wants to throw a challenge at you, you want to accept it and overcome it.
Getting ready for 🇮🇳 vs 🇦🇺 pic.twitter.com/g8c1RRqUbO
— Cheteshwar Pujara (@cheteshwar1) January 31, 2023
The 100th Test seemed a long distance away when you were dropped last year. How happy are you with the way you bounced back?
It was a phase where I was batting well, but I wasn’t getting a big score. I was still getting 80s and 90s and it was all about ensuring that I go back to first-class level and get it right. The County stint happened at the right time because I got a chance to play for Sussex and those games helped me get back into the rhythm and get my form back. Once I scored the runs, I knew my rhythm was back and everything I have been working on is coming back to normal. I was quite confident after that. And also my selection happened at the right time, I got a chance to play the one-off Test in England. Everything happened at the right time with God’s grace.
You played in the earlier part of English summer where the pitches are a lot more seaming. Given you were short on runs and trying to get the rhythm back, how challenging was that?
See, it is not easy. But you want to test yourself in difficult conditions. When you want to improve and get better, you would want to take that challenge and be successful. Once you start scoring runs in difficult conditions and situations against a moving ball where the pitches are not really flat — it was slightly favourable as in you have to bat well against the new ball and it was relatively easy to bat against an old ball — those conditions were ideal for me to prepare. If you are a good batsman, you have to score runs on any sort of pitch. You would figure out a way to score runs. So even if it is challenging, it is important to take it up and have that positive mindset that irrespective of the pitch, I would be able to score runs.
Did you reinvent yourself or just went back to your basics?
You can say it was a kind of a reinvention. But nothing major. Even when you are not scoring runs, there are times where things are not falling your way, you are not getting the rhythm. But when you start putting those number of hours and start spending enough time in the nets and middle, you figure out the stuff you were missing and which is now back into your game. That was something I realised while playing those matches that if I keep working on these things, it would help me even at the international level and not just on the County circuit. I figured out a few things which helped me score those runs and I also knew if I keep working, it would just be a matter of time.
You started off in the noughties and now are in 2023. Do you think pitches have generally become challenging for batsmen these days?
I do agree because if you look at the last few years with WTC coming in, we have been playing on challenging pitches because all the teams want results. Sometimes, matches finish even in three days. So it is challenging for batters — whether we are playing at home or overseas, pitches have been a lot more challenging in the last four-five years. There has been a change, there is no doubt about it. But as a batsman you have to counter it, figure out your own way to tackle bowlers, pitches. Test cricket has been tough for batsmen in the last four-five years.
Have you ever got bored of batting for long?
No,no.. (laughs) I will never get bored of batting. I love this game and I’m passionate about it, so I will never get bored. Yes, sometimes when you play different formats, you will have different strategies and temperament. Because I have been playing white-ball cricket for Saurashtra and Sussex, you need different things in different formats. You will never get bored of it because you are learning something new to add to your game, be it shots or anything. So I never get bored.
There is a transformation happening in the batting line-up with some aggressive batters coming along. How do you see it?
Things do change because these days they are playing a lot of white-ball cricket and you got to be playing shots. When it comes to red ball cricket, some of their natural game is to play attacking game. If you look at Virender Sehwag or Rishabh Pant, there are so many similarities. I’m not trying to compare both, but their approach towards Test cricket is very similar. They are aggressive players and they are sticking to their strengths. We are getting Test players from white-ball circuit which wasn’t the case before. If you look at the previous era, we used to get white-ball players from Test and now it is the other way around. You need to accept that they will end up playing more shots and their games are slightly different. And for them to adapt to Test cricket, they will need different temperament, and approach. You have to accept that because we play a lot of white-ball cricket. You try to guide them and understand that they are playing their role for the team.
With the likes of Shubman Gill, Rishabh Pant, Shreyas Iyer coming in, has your role changed?
My role doesn’t change at all. If you look at my contribution for the team, it has been more or less similar to what I used to do earlier. In Test cricket, you need each and every kind of player, especially if you are batting at the top of the order, you need to ensure the team doesn’t end up losing too many wickets to the new ball. Each and every batter has his own strength and you have to stick to it. My role doesn’t change at all. If you look at my partnerships with Pant, it has always worked out well because I don’t need to be aggressive. He is playing his natural game and I’m sticking to mine. It evens out. You need all sorts of players in Test cricket.