India's Cheteshwar Pujara plays at the ball during play on the final day of the fourth cricket test between India and Australia at the Gabba.(AP)
India's Cheteshwar Pujara plays at the ball during play on the final day of the fourth cricket test between India and Australia at the Gabba.(AP)

I had to grip the bat with four fingers, it wasn't natural: Cheteshwar Pujara

  • Match by match, session by session, Pujara spoke about the experience of being in the thick of action in a historic series and on how he made a gash through Australia's plans mid-way through the series.
By Sanjjeev K Samyal, Rasesh Mandani
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2021 10:17 AM IST

The eleven body blows Cheteshwar Pujara took during his courageous innings on day 5 of the Brisbane Test symbolized the fight India showed to win a coveted series in Australia. On that day, Pujara was determined to thwart the Australian bowling by any means possible; he responded to a barrage of short balls by refusing to pull or use the bat to defend. To minimize his chances of offering a catch, he put his body on the line instead.

"It wasn’t the toughest thing to face," Pujara said in a sweeping interview. "It can be painful, but you are not getting out.”

Match by match, session by session, Pujara spoke about the experience of being in the thick of action in a historic series and on how he made a gash through Australia's plans mid-way through the series.

Edited excerpts:

You were the only Indian player other than Ajinkya Rahane to play all the 4 tests, yet India won. It was an incredible series.

It was a great series. We started very confident, having played well last time (2018-19). We started off well, we were ahead on the first two days at Adelaide. Then, on the third day, in one hour, we lost the game. There was disappointment, but the way we came back, it was one of the best comebacks in my cricketing career. If I have to rate the best Test series against Australia, I will be confused between the 2017 series at home, the series in 2018-19, and this one. With the side we had, this one will be one of the best.

Your thoughts on how Rahane handled things after taking over from Virat Kohli?

I am not going into any comparisons. But if it was any other person other than him…it wasn’t easy. Virat had gone back, we lost the first Test, we had so many injuries. Even if Virat was there, it would have been one of the most difficult situations to be part of as a captain, after losing so many key players. It was really admirable the way Jinks was backing his bowlers. He was really calm. Despite the first loss, we stuck together and kept believing that we can win this series.

Let’s come to that last innings in Brisbane first. How many bruises did you have on the body?

There were many. It was expected, very normal. I have been hit many times on the body. My wife and daughter were a little concerned initially, but I told them that there was nothing serious. I had a clear game plan on day 5. I felt it was important for us not to lose too many wickets in the first session. If they had to be in the game, they had to pick wickets in the first session. It was the most crucial one. They were coming really hard at us. We (Pujara and Shubman Gill) played really well in that session. I got hit many times, but my wicket was very important. If we had lost any crucial wickets in that session, then we would have been in trouble. We knew that there was variable bounce on that wicket. I got hit only from one end. From that particular end, it was difficult to judge the bounce. If you look at Australia’s second innings, most of their batters struggled, and we picked up wickets from that end. I faced most of the deliveries in that particular session from that end. I was just trying to bat that session out.

You had the option to get on top of the ball, or bring the pull shot out, but you decided to take it on the body.

The thing with variable bounce is, if you look to take bowlers on, then you can get a top edge. We saw that a couple of their batters were out playing pull shots. (Marnus) Labuschagne in the first innings, and Matthew Wade also got out pulling. In the second innings that I was playing, taking it on wasn’t a great option, considering the match situation. My pull-shot is not one of the best. It’s not that I can’t play a pull shot, but I wouldn’t risk it at that point of time. The way the game was positioned, my wicket had more value than getting a couple of boundaries. Also, defending the ball or getting on top of the bounce was risky. The way Steve Smith got out (second innings), he also tried that, but couldn’t control. From the crack you never know what will happen. If you try and get on top of the ball, sometimes you will glove it. I felt if there is extra bounce which I couldn’t control, then it could hit my glove. I would rather take it on the body and at least stay on the wicket.

Was it the toughest ever period of play you have encountered in your career, that one hour starting from the 34th over when the first short ball hit you?

May be in terms blows, yes. But I have played many tough spells in my career. Getting hit on the body… when you look at it, I may be in pain, but that is not the toughest thing you face as a batsman. I feel when you face swing bowling or when the ball is seaming, there is a lot of movement in the air, if you can survive that spell, that is more challenging than getting hit on the body. It can be painful at times. If the pitch is such that you are getting hit again and again, it doesn’t help. That can be disturbing at times. That is where you need to be strong mentally, and I wanted to make sure that I am tough. I was not getting disturbed by getting hit on the body.

What were you telling yourself as you kept taking one blow after another?

I wasn’t thinking about the last ball. Whether I hit a four, or I was hit. The best part about that innings was that I was focusing on the next ball. I knew the next ball would not be the same one. The injuries never came to mind. When I got hit, I would take treatment, then focus on the next ball. That was my discipline throughout the innings.

You were quite disappointed when you were ruled out by DRS at 56. Had you survived, were you confident of being able to chase the total down with Pant?

100 percent. I was very confident. I just had to bat for 6-7 overs with the second new ball. Their bowlers were tired, and I knew it would be very difficult for them to bowl consistently in the channel. I had seen that in the Sydney Test too. You ask any fast bowler, it’s never easy to bowl with the same energy with the second new ball. With the time I had at the crease, I knew I could play some shots. And, with Rishabh at the crease, we were confident we would not have to worry about the scoring rate. Our game plan was to get 50 odd runs or whatever we had to chase down in the last 10 overs. I was disappointed that I could not stay till the end. Also, with the dismissal, because I thought there was enough bounce in the wicket for it to go over the stumps. But I just have to respect what the ultimate decision was.

Many experts like Ricky Ponting were critical of your approach, both during the Sydney first innings knock and Brisbane second innings…

I feel as a batter you know what suits your team, rather than what people see from the outside. You just have to trust your methods.

Also, with the finger injury it wasn’t easy for me to bat. I was in some pain. This happened during one of the practice sessions in Melbourne. When I was batting in Sydney and Brisbane, it wasn’t easy to grip the bat properly. When I got hit again at Brisbane, there was more pain. I had to grip the bat with four fingers. It wasn’t natural. Things still worked out pretty well.

Your strike rate in this series was 29.20 as opposed to 41.41 in the 2018-19 series. Was it because you couldn’t go on and get the bigger scores this time?

Sure, I agree. Most of the time, once I get past 50, my strike rate goes up. This series, I didn’t go on and score big scores. But one can’t compare performances to 2018-19 because getting three hundreds and 521 runs in a series can happen only a few times in your career, in some cases, only once. The situation this time was different too; I came into the series having only done net sessions because of Covid. You need some first-class matches, and I got only one. So, to expect me to be in that rhythm…even with Steve Smith you saw it was difficult for him initially in the series.

Pat Cummins got you out 5 times in the series. Did it create doubts in your mind about your game, and did you think of making changes?

Not much. Yes, with some dismissals, I felt that I could have tackled him a little better. But in other dismissals, like in Sydney where the ball kicked off the back of length and hit my gloves, even if I was batting on hundred, I would have still got out. Some balls are such that you can’t control, and as a batsman you should be lucky to survive. Cummins is ranked the No 1 Test bowler, and you have to give him credit. If you get out, you have to accept it and move on.

Yes, on paper it might appear that Cummins has got me out a number of times. But, for me it doesn’t matter a lot if the team is winning, or if I am performing my job. If you look at the Sydney Test match, I got runs, and then got out. So, I didn’t think that I was losing the battle at all. Yes, initially when I didn’t have enough runs, it wasn’t easy. I was facing the most intense spells, walking in at No 3. That’s when he is the most dangerous with the new ball. I probably faced some of his best spells and managed to play through them without getting out. When I got out on 50 or 60, I had faced many balls. It wasn’t that I was walking in and getting out. I would take the positive in being able to disturb his rhythm.

What was the difference between Cummins of this series, and the one you faced in 18-19’?

In 2018-19 too, he was their top bowler. This time they had done some homework on my batting. He had a game plan, and with some of his deliveries, the execution was very good. I took some time to break that game plan but was able to do that later. It didn’t come in the first two matches, but it did come in the last two. To make my own game plan, I had to wait a bit longer, which happens because I was playing Test matches after a long time.

Part of their homework was to target you on the leg side, just the way India targeted Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne.

When there is a new game plan, you need some time to counter that. I was able to come up with a way to counter that in the last two Tests. At the time, it wasn’t easy. I am actually happy that it happened, because as a batsman it gives you opportunity to reflect on your game, if I needed to make any adjustments. Going forward, it will help me a lot. It was a good thing that I could counter it in the same series.

You have a unique way of playing Nathan Lyon when on the front foot. You come down the track only to defend the ball. Did that leave him frustrated?

It did. He has been their key bowler. I have been facing him 2017-18 onwards, and I know his game plans and variations well now. You also need good game plans to counter him, because he is a very good bowler.

R Ashwin has thrown you a challenge to move out of your game plan and hit spinners overs the circle in the England series…

I will leave that alone (laughing). He was just trying to pull my leg.

One thing you haven’t had as a No.3 is someone like a Virender Sehwag for a second wicket partnership. Now, with Shubman Gill’s emergence, has that gap been filled?

Yes, not just him. Even Rohit (Sharma). Both of them are attacking players. That does help me in some way. If another partner is trying to take the bowler on, it allows me to play my natural game. I have batted with Viru pajji (Sehwag) also, where he would have already put the opposition under pressure with his batting. That’s a great way to build a partnership.

Thoughts on the upcoming England series and home venues…

Both Chennai and Ahmedabad have been good for India. We will have the home advantage, but England is a good side, and we can’t take things lightly at all. They have done well in Sri Lanka in the recent series. It will be a good challenge to have at home. All of us looking forward to this, because we are carrying the confidence of an away series win. Our morale is quite high. I am very confident of the side we have, and if we play to potential, we will be able to do quite well.

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