Cheteshwar Pujara wants to go down as a Test batting great. And the appetite he has shown for runs since his U-16 days promises that. Check this out: In first-class cricket, Pujara averages a 200 plus score every 3.8 innings, and that of course includes his two Test doubles.
In this day and age of T20 cricket, India’s highest ranked Test batsman must be cherished for his old-school methods, but the man himself is unhappy not being a part of the ODI squad playing Australia now. Every time an Indian team is out there, Pujara wants to be a part of it, and stay in the collective public consciousness, he told HT in an interview.
Three triple centuries in first-class cricket, eight 200-plus scores, where does this hunger for runs come from?
I don’t like to get out. The moment I score runs, there’s a different confidence. Every time I cross 100, I learn new shots, new things. When you cross 100 is the best time to bat because your body and mind responds to the test. There is no tension because you are set. You just have to be natural. Whatever you want to experiment as a batsman, you can do that only after getting to the first 100.
You are being seen only as a Test specialist?
I have a decent limited-overs record; my strike rate is decent enough. I’ve had the highest batting average in every one-day setup. I haven’t got enough opportunities (with India). During my recent triple hundred against West Indies ‘A’, I scored a hundred inside a session. This despite the fact that West Indies had many fielders saving boundaries. I am getting better at acceleration.
On the last tour to South Africa, you played a crucial knock in the Durban Test victory. This time, you will be a senior batsman. Are you ready?
I am very excited about the tour. This time, it will be a big responsibility. Last time, we still had Sachin, Rahul and Laxman. I will have to be extra careful as a senior player. Luckily, I know South African conditions well. But I need enough practice. I have been in touch with the game and the home Tests against West Indies will be good for me too. When you are in touch with the game, you just have to make minor adjustments based on the conditions. My concentration and focus levels have to be at the highest.
Has India found an apt replacement for Sachin Tendulkar at No 4?
To replace Sachin is impossible, just like you cannot replace Rahul. These are legends. But we obviously have some youngsters who are eager to get Test caps. They have the hunger and patience. And once you have that, the rest will follow. The good thing with Indian cricket now is that domestic cricket is improving. Most of these batsmen have played abroad on ‘A’ tours. So they are ready to be promoted.
With Sachin going, the title of ‘India’s best batsman’ has opened up. It’s a race between you and Virat for the future. Do you plan on remaining the best like Sachin was for 24 odd years?
My aim is simple: I want to hit a 100 each and every innings I play, it doesn’t matter what level, what format, what match. And in that process, if I am consistent enough, people will acknowledge that I am the best. I don’t believe that I have to be the best. If people feel that I am the best that will make me happy.
Some Board officials and former cricketers see you as a future India captain. Do you entertain captaincy aspirations?
Personally, I don’t think about captaincy. If it comes my way, I’ll be ready for it. But that’s for the future. In the near future, I don’t think I am needed because there so many (seniors) already there. My focus is to just keep performing. I have live up to expectations. Due to my past records, people are now expecting 200s from me and not 100s. It’s not easy, I can’t let them down.
One major criticism of you has been your fitness. You have been injured many times. Some feel your out-fielding has kept you out of the ODI squad…
It is a fair criticism, but I am learning. Right now, the kind of attention I’m paying to fitness is a lot more compared to 2-3 years back. I’ve realised the importance of fitness, the kind of diet and fitness regimen I am following. Though impossible, I am only limiting the possibility of getting injured by maintaining discipline in life.
Big overseas tours are coming up, South Africa, New Zealand and England. With Sachin gone, are you ready to carry India’s batting on your shoulders?
It’s going to be a challenging time for us. The conditions won’t be easy. But it will be exciting because making those adjustments to your technique will make you a better batsman. We haven’t been doing so well overseas in recent years. So, now we need to bounce back. I am confident in the young batsmen coming up. I am definitely ready for that responsibility. I wouldn’t have to tell them (youngsters) much; experience will teach them a lot. I am not so experienced myself. I need to learn too. Duncan Fletcher is a great coach and I have full faith in him.
In India, it’s mostly one-day cricketers and IPL stars who get optimal professional rewards. As someone who is still largely a Test player, does that bother you?
I always feel that as a cricketer, I have chosen this profession, so I don’t need to make anybody happy. I am a good cricketer. People who don’t follow Test cricket, people into T20s, won’t be aware of what I am doing. But the moment I start doing better in shorter versions, they will know about my exploits. Whenever I score runs for India, millions of people are getting joy. And people who follow me in Test cricket congratulate me. I like to play for them. My father always told me that ‘you don’t play for yourself. You play for people.’ It’s my responsibility to make them happy. And if ads come along, so be it.
VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble never featured in enough ads as they didn’t always wear the blue…
The way I am scoring in Test cricket right now, eventually people are going to notice. It’s not that I am not getting any ads at all. I do have a few. But if there are T20 and ODI players who are getting more, I am happy for them. Sometimes, it also matters how you appear (chuckles). Maybe, if I was better looking, I would be getting more ads. But that is secondary. I want to score many, many Test hundreds.