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Away from ODIs, Cheteshwar Pujara preps for the future

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-05-2017 Sanjay Rajan

Cheteshwar Pujara speaks in much the same way that he bats—calm and measured.

Notwithstanding a terrific 2016-17 Test season, which saw the Saurashtra batsman rack up an Indian record of 1,316 runs in a season, the Rajkot-born player failed to earn the Indian Premier League contract that would have been the first step to the revival of his limited-overs career.

“I will not say it is frustrating,” says the 29-year-old on phone when asked about his Test specialist label. “I am confident of playing in all formats and also confident that my opportunities will come,” he adds, pointing to his impressive List A (one-day cricket overall) average of 54.12, including 10 hundreds and 23 fifties. He played the last of his five One Day Internationals in 2014.

With no Test cricket scheduled until August, India’s No.3 batsman headed to England in May for a stint with Nottinghamshire with an eye on preparing for the challenging 2018-19 Test season that will also feature three tough overseas assignments.

India’s No.1 Test ranking is expected to come under serious threat when Virat Kohli’s men visit South Africa, England and Australia next season. India are yet to win a Test series in South Africa and Australia and last won a Test series in England in 2007.

“It is going to be challenging without a doubt,” says Pujara, who averages an impressive 51.32 in 48 Tests, with 11 hundreds and 15 fifties. “However, given that most of us have played there before, know the conditions and know what to expect, we’ll also be better prepared. We also got (coach Anil) Kumble’s inputs from his experiences of having toured there several times.”

India extended their winning streak to seven consecutive Test series as they dominated the 2016-17 home season featuring 13 Tests with victories over New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia.

Meanwhile, India’s limited-overs side will begin their title defence at the ICC Champions Trophy in England with a match against Pakistan on 4 June.

“We’ve played good cricket the past year, and some of it in conditions that seamed and assisted pace,” says Pujara, who scored centuries at four of the six Indian venues that hosted their maiden Test match. “We will be looking to replicate our success overseas. It was a great season for the team. For myself, I couldn’t have asked for more.”

Despite his enviable overall Test record, Pujara is yet to score a century in England and Australia, where he averages only 22.20 (five Tests, 2014) and 33.50 (three Tests, 2014-15), respectively.

“I’d love to score hundreds there, but that’s not going to put any pressure on me,” says Pujara, who has a better record in South Africa, averaging 44.42 in four Tests spread over two tours (2010-11 and 2013-14), including a century and a fifty.

“The kind of cricket I’ve played this season, I hope to take it forward, I am confident of doing well. On the previous England tour, I was getting good starts, and this time I will look to build on it. Naturally, I’ll have a different strategy,” he says.

The current county stint is Pujara’s third, after turning out for Derbyshire and Yorkshire previously, and his deal with Nottinghamshire as a replacement for James Pattinson runs for four matches. This could extend to six depending on the Australian quick bowler’s return from the Champions Trophy.

Pujara notched up a century against Gloucestershire at home in Trent Bridge after falling cheaply to Glamorgan in his opening match. Nottinghamshire travel to Gloucestershire and his contract concludes with Derbyshire’s visit to Trent Bridge.

“I’ve always enjoyed playing in England,” says Pujara, who scored centuries for both his previous counties. “I enjoy the cricketing culture there, it’s professional, and the conditions are challenging for batsmen,” adds the soft-spoken batting ace, who scored 219 in three matches for Derbyshire in 2014 and 264 from four games for Yorkshire in 2015.

“The conditions, it’s not the same always…the seam, the bounce. As a batsman, you got to be up to it. But I’ve always enjoyed challenges, enjoyed batting in difficult conditions, be it in domestic cricket or for the country,” he adds.

But despite becoming India’s top Test batsman, Pujara doesn’t seem to attract the kind of endorsement deals that some of his teammates do.

“I’m simple, my lifestyle is also simple and because I don’t play other formats and only Test cricket, I guess I am not highlighted,” he says. “The accolades I got from my fans for my performance in the last Test season were heart-warming.

“But it also made me realize that I need to be more active on social media, share more information about what I am doing and also interact further with fans, especially the young cricketers who want to know how I train and how I prepare. I am confident that if I keep performing, endorsement deals will eventually come.”

Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.

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