For Cheteshwar Pujara, 2015 was a sinusoidal curve. Dropped in Sydney, he struck a superb comeback ton in Colombo and then closed the international season at home with a battle against South Africa on tough pitches. Here, he talks about the year that helped him grow as a batsman.
Cheteshwar, how would you look back at 2015?
Overall, I think it was a good year for me. There were a few ups and downs but I am glad that I made a good comeback. I was quite good in Sri Lanka and then did decently in the South Africa series as well. Of course as a cricketer there are times when you don’t score too many runs. It is a phase everyone goes through. I wasn’t out of form though, kept scoring 30s and 40s but it wasn’t acceptable since I am known for big scores.
Indeed you are. But that string of 30s and 40s went on for quite some time, especially in England and Australia. How frustrating is it for a batsman when he knows he is not out of form, yet continuously falls for low scores?
Let’s talk about England. When I played at Lord’s, the ball was seaming around. In that scenario, my partnership with Murali Vijay was crucial. When you are playing on a challenging wicket, you might not score big runs. But even 30s and 40s prove to be useful because you use up a lot of deliveries and see through the ball, and the team management accepts that. But yes, it is frustrating. It is not at all easy from a batsman’s point of view. My only thought at that time was that I am not out of form. I wasn’t getting out after 20 balls. I was facing anywhere between 50-80 deliveries. So it was just a matter of time when the runs would come and it happened a little later in Sri Lanka. All I did in between was play domestic matches while I missed a few Tests but kept working hard in the background. I am a positive person, so I accepted it and moved on.
In that respect, you were indeed looking good on the Australian tour. In hindsight, did you feel getting the axe in Sydney was a bit harsh? Did you need that break from Test cricket?
As a cricketer you always want to play. I wouldn’t say I needed a break but it was the team management’s decision so I accept it. As a cricketer, you are always looking to improve, whether you are playing or not.
Until the second Test in Sri Lanka, there was a lot of experimentation with the batting order. What did the team management tell you regarding the reason behind keeping you out of the XI?
It is not easy when you are not part of the playing XI. I don’t want to read too much into that situation, and I don’t think it is right to talk publicly about what was said in the dressing room. But I will talk about how I felt at that time. From the moment I was dropped in Australia, I was working hard to return. I spoke to Rahul Dravid during the A-series earlier in the summer and his guidance was really helpful. I tried playing as many games as possible. Even in Lanka, I was working hard in the nets, knowing that my chance will come and I had to be well prepared for it.
What sort of inputs did you receive from Dravid, and possibly others? And how different is working in the nets during such a phase?
The best tip came from Dravid bhai. He told me nothing was wrong with my technique, that so far I had been successful because of my technique. So I shouldn’t doubt it and keep playing. He had seen me bat and said he couldn’t figure out anything wrong. So I kept batting the way I was and worked hard in the nets. My father, who is also my childhood coach, also said the same thing and worked with me behind the scenes. Nothing can compare with spending time out in the middle though. When you are out of form, you try to spend a lot of time in the nets. It doesn’t mean you keep on batting, rather it is about doing the same processes you would follow when batting in the middle. It doesn’t give you any extra bit of technique or temperament, rather it gives you focus and allows you to concentrate. You can work on strategies or plans you might have whenever you are called again, so you have to be ready.
Talking about that comeback hundred in Lanka, how important a knock was it in the scheme of things? And did it occur to you that this could be your big chance?
First, it wasn’t an easy wicket to bat on. Both the wicket and the situation were quite difficult. The team, too, was in trouble as everything was going against us. We lost a few early wickets and then failed to buck the trend. I told myself that I am capable of batting on such strips especially after the kind of bowling and conditions I had faced in Australia and South Africa. I was patient and waited for the opportunity to score. Unfortunately we lost too many wickets and that chance didn’t really come till later when Amit Mishra was batting well. We had a good partnership and that was the one time I was able to score runs quickly during the innings.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I was aware that I was making a comeback. I had a positive mindset because I had been working hard since getting dropped. Once you work hard, you prepare well and be patient, God takes care of the rest. I am happy that things went well, because I love playing for the county and it was an opportunity to prove just that.
There had been a lot of talk about a quick-scoring No.3 in Tests. And your Test strike-rate is impressive, as it was during that hundred in Sri Lanka. Do you think you made a statement then?
I wouldn’t say so. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I would simply say my strike-rate is very decent. Everyone is aware of my record. I have got those double hundreds in Tests and a few triple hundreds in domestic cricket as well. I wouldn’t be capable of scoring those runs if I didn’t have a decent strike-rate. And you just cannot play with a mindset of a quickfire strike-rate. A lot of the time it depends on the situations, sometimes you have to be careful. You can always be a little more positive if the situation is easy. But strike-rate has never been an issue for me as far as Test cricket is concerned.
The win against South Africa was impressive coming on the back of a series win in Sri Lanka. What do you think was the high point? And would frailty against spin be the one weakness of this team, seen how they struggled even at home after England, Australia and Sri Lanka?
I think in this team, communication is the best aspect. Most of us started together and we have been together since the junior level. We understand the strengths and weaknesses of each another, and we always try to improve as a unit and as individuals. The South Africa series was challenging, but they were not unplayable wickets. And international cricket is challenging. You have to adapt, mentally, physically, and skill-wise. And that’s what we did as a team. I wouldn’t say spin is a weakness just because one batsman didn’t stand out and score runs throughout the series. It was about a team effort and all batsmen contributed enough to win. Even the lower order contributed and we were able to achieve our goal of winning the series. So, looking at it that way, we had many positives.
While you have successfully made it back to the Test XI, what’s your view point about your ODI/T20I chances? Will you be in the IPL auction this year?
Yes, I will be playing in the 2016 IPL. I will be part of the auction. I think I am a very good limited-over cricketer and I have a good record in these shorter formats. I have even played regularly for India A. So there is nothing to say that I cannot play ODIs or T20Is. I am very much capable. As any cricketer, I am always working on my game. Recently, I have worked on some shots that help in the shorter formats when you need to score quick runs, especially in the death overs. It is all about getting an opportunity and I am sure my time will come. The perception is wrong, and I am very capable of limited overs cricket.
Last but not the least, can you shed some light on the academy initiative for kids that you have begun recently?
It was my father’s idea. He told me that you should build an academy that provides facilities and infrastructure to young cricketers, particularly those who can’t afford it. This is the right way to promote the game as well as contributing towards a social cause. Sometimes I practice at the same premises and interact with them while my father coaches them. I try and answer questions about how to build a career in cricket; possible fitness routines and what should be their mindset to be successful. Playing cricket, especially for India, has given me so many things, and this is a small way of giving back to the game and the country.