India vs Australia: Past glory does not matter to me, says Cheteshwar Pujara
“Aren’t you bored of batting now?” Nathan Lyon’s dig at Cheteshwar Pujara sounded more like a plea when it was caught on the stump microphone. It wasn’t what you would expect from the premier off-spinner but this was an Australia team working on language skills on way to shedding the win-at-all-cost mentality. So, on India’s last tour of Australia in 2018-19 where he had played over 1000 Test deliveries, this was what Pujara got.
It is another matter that Pujara can be deaf to attempts to rile him. His unhurried walk to square-leg, making no eye contact as he settles in his stance and the monk-like focus allows him to play the next ball on its merit. “I think sledging is overrated. It’s irrelevant,” he says. “I don’t think you can win too many battles with sledging. I don’t even know what they are saying when I am in my zone.”
If anything, Pujara says the fielding team’s chatter could strengthen his resolve to keep batting. In 2017, as Pujara scored 202 in Ranchi, he was told by the Australians, “now if you don’t get out, we’ll have to ask for wheelchairs.” In 2018-19, Josh Hazlewood’s pre-series comment of Pujara’s wicket being more valued than Virat Kohli’s became a prescient warning when it was possibly intended to mess up the India captain’s mind. Pujara, India’s No. 3, batted out 1135 balls amassing 521 runs as the visitors recorded their first-ever Test series victory in Australia.
“We’ve got to find a way to outlast him if he bats the way he did last time,” seamer Pat Cummins has said ahead of this four-Test series beginning with the day-night Test in Adelaide on December 17.
Hundred that helped
The start to the 2018-19 series was poor. Against a full-strength bowling attack, India were 41/4 in the first session of the Adelaide Test. Pujara’s hundred that day not only allayed fears of starting another overseas tour on the backfoot but laid the foundation of the series win as well.
“I would definitely like to repeat the performance, but I am not someone who would live on past glory,” he says. “Yes, it was an excellent tour but this will be a fresh start. I will have to be in my zone again. It’s not that because it worked in the past, results will follow. They never do. You have to concentrate in every innings.”
“Concentrate” Pujara does. “My routine – meditation, prayers and yoga are part of my life. I don’t do them consciously to improve my game but there is correlation for sure. They help me stay calm and positive,” he says. Pujara believes heightened levels of concentration need to be cultivated early. “It’s very difficult to develop after you are older.”
Mohammed Shami explains the damage Pujara’s unerring focus does. “He sucks the bowlers’ blood in the nets. When you bowl to him, you know exactly how far you are drifting away from the off-stump,” said the India fast bowler in an Instagram chat. Pujara’s third tour of Australia will also start his second decade in international cricket. When he takes the field at the Adelaide Oval though, it would be 278 days from the Ranji Trophy final in March. It is the longest he has stayed away from competitive cricket. “We have a pandemic, so no point in complaining,” he says sounding phlegmatic.
“I always had my mind on this tour. I had predicted that we will resume international cricket with Australia. Subconsciously, even in April, May, June, I had this series in mind. Fortunately, the lockdown was not as severe in Rajkot. I have been batting and doing what I should be doing.”
When his teammates were playing the Indian Premier League in UAE, his father’s academy ground in the outskirts of Rajkot became Pujara’s workplace. On June 22, he posted a video of his first net session in lockdown. “Back at it…felt like a long time away just as I took the stance felt as if it was yesterday.”
The academy is an ode to father Arvind’s old school batting philosophy. Cricket lessons are free but only for a select few with sound basics. It also serves as an ideal training base for Pujara before a series because wickets can be tailored to an approximation of what he might face and net bowlers are available. The upside of being a Test specialist is the luxury of singular focus on the longest format. The downside: long period of international inactivity.
Father and son admit that no amount of nets can be a substitute for match practice. “You will never be able to bring in the same level of competitive intensity. There are no second chances in a match. The psychology and hurt of losing your wicket in a match is very different,” says Arvind Pujara.
At the time the interview was recorded at Pujara’s’ home in Rajkot, it wasn’t known that first time father-to-be Kohli would be playing only the first Test. The hype around the series may be built on the style of Kohli and the substance of Steve Smith but the opposing bowling unit is aware of the worth of Pujara’s wicket especially after his Man-of-the-Series winning performance last time.
“Yes, they would have studied me. We won the series; I got runs, so there will be extra pressure. But that’s what one has to learn to handle. I think you just have to stick to your strength. If you watch the ball and play to the merit of the ball, you will be successful most of the time,” says Pujara.
India’s bowling attack
India’s fast bowling attack makes the batting unit more confident, says Pujara.
“If we can get 300-350 runs, with the bowling line-up that we have, I am very confident we can bowl teams out. Both, our fast bowlers and spinners are very good. (Ravichandran) Ashwin and (Ravindra) Jadeja are amongst the best too.”
Jadeja may miss the first Test due to injury.
Pujara believes the biggest advantage of a quality bowling attack is that it forces the opposition to rethink on offering green wickets.
“We saw it in the last tour that we have fast bowlers for it. We just have to play good cricket. As long as we play to our potential, we have a very good chance to win the series,” he says.
“Having said that, Australia is a strong team and they will put up a good show. They will be a stronger batting line-up with Smith and (David) Warner back (Warner is out of the first Test with injury). It has never been easy and it will not be easy again. It will be a good battle. We will have to earn our wins.”