India vs New Zealand: Domestic grind keeps Cheteshwar Pujara battle sharp
The grind of the Ranji Trophy also entails playing in humble venues with make-shift, open-air dressing rooms.
Cheteshwar Pujara is well-known for his lack of dancing skills, even teased for possessing two left feet at the Sydney Cricket Ground after India had won their maiden Test series in Australia last year. Put him on a cricket pitch, and Pujara’s feet movement are second to none. He even ‘dances’ down the track with aplomb—usually to smother the spin or find a gap, but sometimes even to clear the boundary rope. Pujara’s assault is measured and tailor made for red ball cricket. His solid defensive game, based on a home-made bottom-handed technique, has made him one of best No3s in Test cricket.
But Pujara insists he has it in him to play the shorter formats too, where he has played just 5 ODIs and is yet to make his first appearance in T20Is. “I will keep trying,” says Pujara, in a conversation with Hindustan Times. “I will not avoid playing white-ball cricket at all.”
One of the big reasons why Pujara does not want to stop striving to be an all-format player is to avoid long periods of inactivity. Following his career-best overseas showing in Australia (521 runs in 4 Tests) that ended in January last year, Pujara had to wait until August for his next India assignment—the tour of the West Indies. In the meanwhile, he was reduced to a mere spectator during the 2-month long spells of the IPL and India’s World Cup campaign.
This year is scheduled to be no different. Pujara will be part of the upcoming Test series in New Zealand. But being a T20 World Cup year, India will play its next Test series at the end of the year. So, bagging a County cricket contract will be his best bet to keep the competitive juices flowing.
“That’s why I try and play domestic cricket, because I know where I stand,” he says. Playing domestic cricket regularly also helps Pujara prepare himself for Tests. “I know what I need to work on ahead of the Tests in New Zealand. The challenges ahead are clear and what I need to do to succeed there.”
When intervals between series drag on, Pujara keeps his game fresh by returning to the domestic grind. “Then, it’s preparation not just for New Zealand. Sometimes there are things that you need to work on in your game in general,” he says. “When you are dismissed, you figure out that these are the things you still need to work on. As a batsman if you keep scoring runs, you think that things are fine. But when you are playing a match, and you get out, even if it’s after a hundred, there will be some flaw somewhere, or an area where you need to work on.”
The grind of the Ranji Trophy also entails playing in humble venues with make-shift, open-air dressing rooms. What does that feel like for a Test cricketer who has experienced thunderous applause for winning the toughest of battles in famous grounds around the world?
“I don’t think there should be any ego issues,” he says. “You can’t keep practicing in the nets alone if you want to remain competitive.”
Pujara is effusive in his praise for the standard of India’s domestic cricket. He says: “Our cricket is competitive. You keep coming across pitches that are challenging. Nowadays, most teams prefer to play on wickets that are result-oriented. If you want a result in four days, it’s not easy for batsmen. When you are looking for 20 wickets in four days, sometimes the game finishes in three days. So, most of the time you are playing on challenging pitches. One odd game you get a good pitch to bat on.”
Pujara speaks from a position of authority. India’s Test vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane, who played on testing tracks for Mumbai in the ongoing Ranji season, started off with an innings of 79 but could muster only 30 more runs in his last five innings. Rahane then went on to play a warm-up match in New Zealand and immediately struck a hundred.
“In domestic cricket, it’s not about pace. It’s very similar to what I encountered in county cricket; you will have only two-three bowlers who will keep bowling in that channel. They wouldn’t be very quick, their pace might be 120-125, but they can bowl in the same area for a long period of time,” Pujara says. “Also, our spinners in domestic cricket are better than any other team in international cricket. You don’t get many loose deliveries and have to work harder than what you have to do in international cricket, because even the pitches are quite challenging.”
Pujara, however, refuses to let his ambitions of playing short-format cricket die, including the IPL. He religiously registers his name for the annual auction, but hasn’t been picked for the past five years. This year will be the sixth IPL season that he hasn’t participated in. “I don’t think it [not being picked] bothers me much. If I don’t get picked, so be it,” he says. “But I remain hopeful. Age is still on my side. We have the Saurashtra Premier League, and I try and perform there. Hopefully some franchise might notice and feel that I can be helpful to them.”
The pitch in Rajkot, Pujara’s home ground, is reputed to be the most batting friendly in India. It was due to that that his international initiation was delayed, with him being billed as a flat-track run-machine. Similarly, he believes that people have a preconceived notion of his T20 ability. To drive home his point, Pujara talks about the 61-ball century he struck in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy last year, and also how he changed gears in the Adelaide Test, when the team was looking to declare.
“Sometimes you need a little more backing, where one is told that he will get five-six games no matter the performance” he says. “Then you know that you don’t need to worry and just express yourself, play the shots which you know and build your game. That’s how you start performing.” More than anything else, Pujara misses the opportunity to grow as a cricketer that the IPL offers. “You are working with the best when it comes to IPL,” he says. “You have the best trainers, best support staff and get to face some of the best bowlers. As a batsman, there is much to gain.”
T20 cricket was not on his agenda when he amassed his first triple hundred at the U14 level. His father in fact didn’t even allow him to play gully-cricket, so that his game of ‘playing in the V’ remained unaffected. Does he ever get the feeling that his foundations haven’t kept up with the times?
“Not at all! To reach where I have and the way I have performed, I would say no. If you ask any other cricketer, they will take it. Maybe not this generation, but when I started playing all of us always aspired to play Tests,” he says. “When I started playing the game, there was not the kind of money that there is now. I always loved this game, and I would play even if where there was no money because I just love batting. I played club cricket for many teams in Rajkot and Mumbai till about five years back, where I did not get paid at all.”
Pujara, though, is glad that the BCCI has handed out Grade A contracts to him and players of his ilk—Rahane, Ishant Sharma and R Ashwin—who only play Tests. That retainership, worth Rs 5 crore per year, helps make up for the lack of an IPL deal. “I welcome this gradation method,” he says “One has to make sure that is continued. If only One-Day cricket and T20s are financially rewarding, I don’t think the young generation would want to play Test cricket.”
Facing swing and seam in New Zealand
New Zealand is very similar to Australia in terms of pace and bounce. There will be some lateral movement as well, at some stage. The wind factor also comes into play, at times. So, it’s just about getting acclimatised to the conditions and handling situations.
Left-arm threat of Boult and Wagner
Yes, they will be a challenge. But most of our players have played them in the past. You know what to expect from them, but at the same time you need to get used to playing those angles.
Most satisfying Test series
Overseas, the last tour of Australia (2018-19) was my best. It was one of the best series I have been part of. One of the best test victories I have experienced. You rarely have a series where you score three hundreds in four Test matches, and it’s not about hundreds alone.
It’s about match-winning contributions. If you can turn things around as a cricketer, it’s always a proud moment for you.
In India, it’s the series against Australia in 2017. We had lost the first Test in Pune and then I scored 92 at Bangalore where I had a partnership with Ajinkya Rahane.
I think that innings was the most crucial one for me. Australia was playing very well against us. And to beat them from 0-1 down was very tough. that was the toughest series I have been part of.
More day-night Tests?
It’s not natural cricket. I don’t think there can be too many day-night Tests. This game is played in the day and with the red ball. You know that there will be some additional assistance for fast bowlers. As the game progresses, the pitch will settle down.
In a day-night game, most of the time, the first session is easier to bat, and as the twilight comes in, it becomes more difficult to face the fast bowler or even a spinner on occasions. It’s just because of the light, it’s not the conditions really.
It becomes difficult to see the ball, and it’s a different challenge all together. I don’t think it’s a normal challenge. Even if you look at it practically, there are not many places you get to practice in evenings.