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Every team needs a player to hold up the innings: Pujara

Wisden India logo Wisden India 05-05-2016
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Cheteshwar Pujara is not a part of the Indian Premier League 2016, and is busy either playing corporate tournaments for Indian Oil, his employer, or spending time at his academy in Rajkot. In a freewheeling chat with Wisden India, he spoke about his life in his hometown, that dropped catch in the Ranji Trophy final and fielding at short-leg, among other things. Edited excerpts:

It’s almost six years since you made your Test debut. How much has the dressing room culture evolved during this period, and where do you see yourself in the scheme of things?

When I play for the Indian team, I have a simple motto: to win matches and contribute to the team’s success. Sometimes, I have to open the innings, and I was flexible enough to do that. Usually I bat at No. 3; that is where I am most comfortable.

When it comes to the young Test team, everyone is on the same wavelength where you can share your experience and talk about the positives and negatives. The communication part is really good. There are some senior players, but the age difference is not much. If you wanted to go and talk to Sachin Tendulkar what is right or wrong, everyone might not be comfortable. In the sense you cannot go and tell Sachin Tendulkar this is wrong. When he was around, you obviously knew that he knows everything about the game and he is the one to whom you can go and talk when you have some problem. When it comes to a team, when the age difference is less it becomes easier for more communication both on and off the field. That is what is happening now.

Your 145 not out as an opener in the third Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo last year set up a famous away series win. What do you recollect when you look back at that innings?

To be honest, when I went out, it was not easy as I was making a comeback, but my mindset was I just had to go there and apply what I have prepared during the series and before that series (with India A and Yorkshire). I just wanted to play my natural game rather than worrying about getting out and being dropped. I never thought about it. I tried and kept my mind blank where I don’t get any positive or negative thoughts. I played according to the situation. We knew the series was 1-1 and had to win, and to win we had to put up a good score. On that particular wicket, we needed at least 300 and the way we started, things didn’t go our way. The most important thing was the partnership with Amit Mishra as it changed the course of the game from 180 for 7.

Did you speak to your father (who has been his coach) during the course of that innings?

He told me to keep things simple, play according to the merit of the ball, and leave the rest to god. You can’t over analyse things. When you are under pressure, you know how to handle the situation. You have got the opportunity at the right time, and you just have to make use of it.

Has it sunk in yet that in time to come your knock will be viewed like the way we look back at Sunil Gavaskar’s show in West Indies in 1971 or Dilip Vengsarkar’s century at Lord’s in 1986?

Yes, we won an away series after so many years. Once we won, we realised that it was a remarkable achievement. Initially, we just wanted to win the series, but once we won we realised what we have achieved.

You have often wrongly been given out lbw. How frustrating it is for you?

When it is at the international level it is very frustrating. The umpiring standards are very good, and sometimes they come and apologise because it is shown on the screen. In the Australia series when I was looking good, I was given caught behind when I was not. It is bit frustrating because you are 30 or 40 not out, bowlers are tired, there is nothing much in the wicket and you know you are up for a big one. Suddenly you are out, at times it is frustrating but you have to accept that.

The team does know that I wasn’t out, but when it comes to personal preferences although you know you are not out, overall it is described that you have failed. So, it adds a little bit of pressure. But, I am a positive person. I see it as I can’t do much about it and leave the crease. Next time I try and ensure that I don’t allow the ball to hit my pad anymore.

In this season’s Ranji Trophy final, you dropped Siddhesh Lad in Mumbai’s first innings when they had a lead of 36 runs. His 88 and tenth-wicket stand of 103 runs with Balwinder Singh Sandhu gave Mumbai a lead of 136 runs and took the game away from Saurashtra. Have you worked out why you dropped that catch?

Yes, the fielding wasn’t up to the mark. We dropped two catches – Shreyas Iyer and Siddhesh Lad –after which we didn’t have a chance to come back. The way the wicket was behaving, if Mumbai had 150 or more to chase in the second innings, things would have been difficult for them. Because when we were batting in the second innings, it looked like the wicket was deteriorating and the bounce was variable. If we were playing at CCI even a lead of 130 would not have been much, but the wicket [in Pune] was such that it was a big lead.

I was leading the side at that time because Jaydev Shah was not on the field. There were so many thoughts running in my mind. What kind of field do I have to set if Siddhesh takes a single? If Ballu comes on strikes what kind of field should I set for him? I was never expecting a catch, to be very honest, because I was thinking he would try and smash. I was not prepared at that time. This can happen to the best of slip catchers. Slip catching is something where you are 90% successful, never 100%, but you try to improve.

Iyer’s 117 from No. 3 at a strike-rate of 82.39 in that match was remarkable. As a No. 3 batsman, do you envy such a knock? Also, have comparisons with Rahul Dravid put additional pressure on you?

Initially it was a compliment, comparing myself with such a great cricketer. Over a period of time I have realised that if I am batting at No. 3, I have to stick to my strengths, which are very similar to Rahul Dravid’s. I have learnt many things by interacting with him. When I was out of form before the Sri Lanka series and was playing for India A, he was the coach and was very helpful. The comparison should not keep on going. He has more than 10,000 runs in both formats and I have just started. There is a lot of time to go. I don’t believe in comparison because he played in a different era and now the mindsets are completely different.

When it comes to Test cricket, I would still say that the strike-rate hardly matters as long as you are helping the team win. If you win a Test in three days or four days or five days, it doesn’t matter. You have to realise that Shreyas is playing some shots that are risky and the wicket doesn’t have a price. You tend to fail more often. When you are in good form it comes off. He is the kind of a batsman who is similar to Virender Sehwag. Everyone cannot be like Virender Sehwag and you cannot have all the players in the team playing shots. There is a big difference between first-class cricket and international cricket. He is a very good batsman, but what I am trying to say is that there has to be a player in every team who holds up the innings. If you look at New Zealand, Kane Williamson is there. England have Joe Root. Their strike-rates are below 70 most of the time, which is fair enough. If you have a strike-rate of 60 and you do your job, it is fine.

You have taken some great catches at short-leg in recent years. How did it all start for you at that position?

I am more comfortable in slip as I have been good there since junior cricket, but it is never about preferences when it comes to the Indian team. I first fielded at short-leg when I was a 12th man with the Indian team. I took a brilliant catch and I realised I can do this job.

What is the secret of a good short-leg fielder?

It’s all about reflexes. The kind of work I have done, preparing before a game, has helped improve my reflexes. You have to know which angle the ball is going to come at by looking at the face of the bat. There are small technical aspects you need to be able to know and after that it is all about practice.

The preparation involves trying and doing match simulation. It is about having someone lob or hit the ball when you are fielding at silly point or short-leg. You try and create those angles; you try and move as he plays around with his bat. Just like you do your slip catch practice. The weight distribution has to be equal with shoulders and legs a bit apart. You have to be on your toes, and stay as low as possible.

The right approach is dependent on what shot the batsman is playing. If he is sweeping then you have to be low. Sometimes if he is playing in front of square-leg, you just have to turn towards short fine-leg. If he is pulling, you have to try and avoid. When you look at the backlift, you figure out where he is going and you avoid being in that position.

Have you ever been scared fielding there?

You have to accept that fielding at short-leg is not easy. It depends on the kind of wicket, depends on what kind of shots the batsman is playing. Sometimes you get scared when the ball passes around. You have to accept that this is what it is. It is not about the fear always because they are not playing the shots all the time. If the situation is such that the batsman is trying to hit boundaries, when the ball passes by you sometimes, you start being afraid. But, all the time the ball doesn’t pass by the short-leg fielder because they are playing through cover and mid-off on the offside.

Do you remember an instance that scared you the most?

When I was fielding at short-leg against England at the Wankhede, Alastair Cook’s sweep hit me right in the ribs. When the ball was travelling, I could see it hitting my ribs. Once it hit, I could not breathe for a couple of seconds. I wouldn’t say it was scary, but it was painful. The pain stayed for one or two days before settling down.

At times do you wish that you are not asked to field there?

Not all the time, because that is a crucial position where I have taken some brilliant catches and the players appreciate it. Sometimes, you have to make that sacrifice for the team.

Do you follow any short-leg fielder?

What I have heard is Eknath Solkar was terrific, but I haven’t seen him. But you can’t single out one player as you try and learn from everyone. The way Hashim Amla ducks, some guys told me it’s a different technique. I can’t do it, but I try to observe it. The way he lets the ball go about.

Which are your top three catches at short-leg?

One when I was a 12th man before my debut in the Australian series (in 2010), I took Tim Paine’s catch at silly point off Pragyan Ojha. Then, in the last South Africa series I took a catch to dismiss Faf du Plessis. And, in Sri Lanka I took a left-hander’s catch but don’t remember his name.

Your cricket academy is three years old, as is your marriage. What has marriage done to you?

I am still the same. You feel your life is complete when you have a partner to share your good and bad memories with. In cricket you have failure and success, but if someone is there for you to share your feelings then it becomes much easier. When I got married she did not know much about the game, but because my father is my coach, most of the time we discuss cricket at home. Now she has started to understand things and comes to watch matches in the stadium. Now that she understands the technical aspects, it becomes sometimes difficult as we always end up talking about the game.

Marriage must have also filled a big void in your house since you lost your mother very early…

It was (a big void). She passed away when I was 17. I never thought I would lose her because at that time I didn’t know she had cancer. I didn’t know that it is a life threatening disease. Initially it was really tough, but once I got involved in my game, my attention was more on cricket. I had a goal to achieve.

It was (a big void). She passed away when I was 17. I never thought I would lose her because at that time I didn’t know she had cancer. I didn’t know that it is a life threatening disease. Initially it was really tough, but once I got involved in my game, my attention was more on cricket. I had a goal to achieve.

Since my wife has come in, we have a very pleasant environment in our house. When she talks, the atmosphere is very relaxed, but when I am talking with my father it is always serious and professional. We complement each other, and more than me she is the one who has been taking care of my father regularly, making sure he is taking medicines on time. My wife is always after him as he has undergone a bypass surgery and needs to watch what he eats.

Have you ever been mobbed in Rajkot?

Yes, but I try to avoid places where I know I will get mobbed. Sometimes if five-ten people ask for photographs, I oblige, but if there are 50 people I can’t please everyone. If you are a cricketer in India you are going to be mobbed because everyone loves the game so much. You have to accept it. I try and respect the passion of the fans for the game because they make us famous, but if I am at an airport and ten people want a photograph, I can’t please everyone because then I will miss my flight. Then, it becomes frustrating. When I have to go for movies, the guys at the theatres here arrange a separate entrance for me, and as soon as the show ends I walk out. I never wanted to be famous. I always wanted to live life normally. I was never behind fame, and I tried avoiding it, but if you are a (good) cricketer you will ultimately become a famous person.

I don’t have many friends here outside of cricket. I spend a maximum of two to three months in a year in Rajkot. I am doing my BBA, but haven’t been to college and I don’t get much time to socialise. When I was playing Under-14, Under-16 I realised I have to sacrifice many things. That was a part of the game, and as I progressed I realised that it will be even tougher.

Do you read what is written about you in the media?

I don’t read newspapers, not to avoid anything but because the schedule is so tight. When someone tells me I should read something, then I do or else I hardly read the newspapers. I don’t think any cricketer follows newspapers religiously.

I have always had a good interaction with the media especially when I speak about the game. When I interact I learn new things. When you are asking me about a particular series, say the knock in Sri Lanka, which is technical or analysing conditions, I recollect those moments, which is good for me. By repeating those things, I recollect what I have done right or wrong. When someone criticises I realise what mistake I have done and where I can correct and improve.

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Do you sometimes feel relieved that you have a low profile lifestyle that is not as scrutinised as that of Virat Kohli?

I always look at the cricketing part rather than seeing their personal life or fame. Virat, Shikhar (Dhawan) they all have their personal life. You don’t want to get into what money or fame they are earning. I am so much into cricket that you can observe and learn so much from their games. I limit it to that. When you interact, you discuss everything, but when I am seeing from a distance I just stick to a cricketing part.

The kind of work ethic Virat has, the kind of preparation he has before the game, the fitness and fielding, there are so many things. The kind of time he spends in the nets, the kind of work he does in the gym, on the field to improve his fielding. I like spending time with him because he is very active and always observing what the bowler is doing. We always discuss strategies. He always comes to me and says this is what I have done and it has helped me. If you want you can try it out.

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