India's Test batting mainstay Cheteshwar Pujara personifies mental toughness and dogged determination in the middle and he says those very traits helped him beat the "lockdown blues" amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Rajkot-based cricketer got back to training at the nets this week, three months after helping Saurashtra win their maiden Ranji Trophy title.
Though coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly in India and uncertainty remains around the resumption of professional cricket, Pujara said he hit the nets at just the right time.
"You have to start at some point and it is important. If you are going to the ground, you are getting used to the sun and outdoor environment. Most players have been indoors for such a long time," Pujara told PTI in an interview.
"Initially it is just about feeling the ball and as it is, there is plenty of time before cricket starts. I don't see any series happening for the next two-three months, so one has to take things gradually."
Pujara said his mental fortitude helped him immensely while he was confined to his house.
"If you are mentally tough, you can take a long break comfortably. Test matches don't happen frequently so one has to play domestic cricket. It was not such a big thing for me and to come back from it, I will be fresh and more eager to play. The mental challenge is not an issue for me," he asserted.
Pujara, who is training at his academy with some of his Saurashtra teammates, will be gradually increasing the intensity of the net sessions. For now, he is batting for 20-25 minutes thrice a week.
"Once you are outdoors it is a different feeling altogether. Training here is obviously not the same as you get in a team environment but at least you are doing something to get yourself going.
"Your body will start moving a bit once you have a routine. As a cricketer, it is important to start whenever possible and adhere to the government guidelines (on social distancing) at the same time."
Pujara, like the rest of his India teammates, kept up with a customised fitness regime at home during the lockdown.
Cricketers are not used to a break this long and are vulnerable to mental health issues but for Pujara, the phase was not dark at all. After all, he has experienced darker moments in his career, most recently in 2011 when a knee injury kept him out of the game for close to six months.
"Getting back from an injury is much tougher than this. When I was injured in the past (2008 and 2011), I resumed training after a long time, longer than this but the lockdown was different. I was still active when I was indoors (with the fitness routine).
"Obviously, it feels a little different when you are holding a bat after a long time but because I worked on my fitness, it is helping now that I am playing again."
Did he ever think that he would lose his edge staying away from the game for that long? "Every cricketer deals with situations differently. Mentally, some people do get frustrated but I just took it as a break.
"I never felt that (I lost my edge) because I have made comebacks after longer breaks (due to injury). The comeback you make from an injury is much tougher than a situation like this when I was not injured.
"The first week (of training) is tough. After a week you are back to normal, because you have played this game for such a long time, experience matters a lot," said the 32-year-old.
With no clarity over the start of the domestic season, there is a possibility that Pujara's next competitive game comes during the tour of Australia in December. However, preparation is all he can focus on for the moment.
"Nobody knows what the situation will be three-four months down the line, when the next series will be held. The next few months are about preparation and getting back into the game. It is too far to think about the next series"
The world will have a "new normal" in the post-COVID-19 scenario and so will cricket.
Next month's series between England and West Indies will mark the resumption of international cricket and will be played in a bio-secure environment.
The use of saliva on the ball, an intrinsic part of the game, has also been banned to contain the spread of the virus.
Pujara feels the ban was "essential and the right thing has been done". The soft-spoken batsman also revealed that he did not watch any sport in the last three months and most of his time was spent with his little daughter.
"I prefer not watching anything when I am home. It is not because of lockdown, otherwise also I like to spend time with family, especially with my daughter. She likes me being around and she is enjoying this phase the most," he added.
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