The most vulnerable variable in India’s mainstream Test batting unit, could possibly be a fitting description of Cheteshwar Pujara’s place in the Indian cricketing history. Umpteen number of times has the right-hander been under the scanner and several times has he been dropped over the last 13 years of international cricket.
But like his batting style, the stoicism and doggedness has made him cross the barriers at several junctures during his international career. Pujara has scored runs everywhere, be it India, Australia, South Africa or England, his name will forever be remembered. But ahead of his 100th Test, a rare landmark, with just 12 players ahead of him, Pujara insisted that there is a lot more to achieve.
"When I started playing cricket, I never thought I would play 100 Tests,” Pujara said at the pre-match press conference on Thursday.
“For me, it was always to be in the present and not look at the future. Playing 100 Tests means a lot to me and my family, my father has played an important role, and he will be here tomorrow. I am thankful to my family for their support, but there is a lot more to achieve," Pujara added.
Ahead of the Delhi Test, Indian all-rounder Ravichandran Ashwin had penned a story on Pujara, and his technique of finding ‘hard’ success especially when everyone around him were rather playing with a flow. The 35-year-old added that one should stick to their tried and tested methods, as long as they are confident about their ways.
"Ashwin has recently spoken about me being very stubborn. As long as you stick to your methods, as long as you are confident about your ways, you can be successful,” Pujara added.
“You also have to be disciplined. I have certain routines, I pay a lot of attention to my fitness. I do yoga, meditation and pranayam which has helped me to stay in the present and shut down the outside noise. It has helped me detach from the noise outside, be it in a newspaper, or on social media, even if it is positive," Pujara said.
How did Pujara force a comeback into the Test setup?
Ahead of the one-off Test against England, Pujara was yet again at the sideline with India moving away from the right-hander. But the right-hander with 1094 runs, five centuries ensured that he earnt himself a come-back to the national side. It wasn’t just the runs but the way Pujara had remodelled himself, with newer shots and better scoring rate.
“It was challenging (to be dropped) but the best part was that I was playing County cricket for Sussex. That’s when I started scoring runs and found my rhythm back, and the shots that I was talking about came from there. I spoke to Rahul Bhai, Vikram Paaji that these are the things that I wanted to work on. Although I was dropped, I had a clear message from the team,” he added.
“The moment I started scoring runs, I knew that I would return to the setup. When I got the opportunity to play that one-off Test in England, I was ready. I had played enough first-class games for Sussex and knew the conditions there. That gave me a lot of confidence.”
Scoring runs at a brisk pace isn’t one of Pujara’s game-plans and neither is it one of his strengths. But tiring out opposition, taming out the new ball is one, which is why Pujara added that he would stick to his strength, and would definitely add a shot or two as the game demands.
"As a player you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. In the last few years, I have learnt to stick to my strengths, I have added a few more shots to my game that has helped me to be successful over the last two years," he added.
Pujara is no less than a monk, at least in terms of how dogged and determined he is whenever he has donned the Indian whites. And the 35-year-old pointed out that preparation is key, with the right-hander jumping the age-group levels with great success.
“Patience does not come on its own, you need mental strength for that, preparation is key, I scored runs at junior cricket, age group cricket. It requires hard work over a period of time and I think when you focus on your game, eventually, you will succeed.”
What are some of the knocks that Pujara looks back on?
Despite his slow burn effect on the cricketing fans, Pujara is revered for his knocks, several ones that has in the past and present helped India to famous wins and draws away from home. But it is 72 that he scored against Bengaluru on his debut, against Australia that he holds close to his heart.
“My favourite knock has been my debut innings where I scored 72. It was one of the most important knocks in my career. If I hadn’t scored those runs, maybe I wouldn’t still be playing international cricket. In 2017, the 97 against Australia in Bangalore was equally special. My first overseas hundred in South Africa. 124 at Adelaide and the Gabba one, where I scored a fifty, and was hit plenty of times.”
Test cricket is quite a challenge in itself but being reduced to just playing Test as a cricketer is a bigger challenge, one that had daunted Pujara in the past. But Pujara said that it is crucial for a Test batter to play a lot of First-Class games, especially when they are going through a rough patch.
“If you look at the current Test schedule, when you play one Test and go back home, it is tough for the batters. Sometimes we are sitting at home and watching cricket on TV. That’s the most important time for a Test cricketer to challenge yourself, even though there isn’t a series around the corner,” he insisted.
“I felt that specifically during the COVID time, when we didn’t have a lot of red-ball games, it was very challenging. It is important to play First-Class cricket, and motivate yourself.”