Rahul Dravid’s retirement has left a huge void in the Indian batting order. The man who is touted to fill in those big shoes is Cheteshwar Pujara. The Saurashtra batsman has been very prolific at the domestic level and if his innings on Test debut is anything to go by, he has all the requisites to be a long-term option for India. In an exclusive interview to CricketCountry correspondent Nishad Pai Vaidya, Pujara talks about comparisons with Dravid, his injury phase, Under-19 World Cup and lots more.
Excerpts from an interview
CricketCountry (CC): You are poised to take on the mantle from Rahul Dravid. Is there any feeling of pressure or excitement? How do you look at the build-up?
Cheteshwar Pujara (CP): Firstly, I really do not like to compare, particularly when it has to do with someone like Rahul Dravid – someone who has scored more than 10,000 runs in both Tests and One-Day Internationals (ODIs). I am yet to make a mark for myself and it isn’t a correct comparison. But it’s a huge compliment for me to be compared to him and I can certainly gain some confidence. It gives me a good feeling that I have something in me and people appreciate me and make such comparisons. I’ll do my best, but it is almost impossible to replace Dravid. I want to focus on what I can do best for the country.
CC: The comeback to the national team has come after a long gap away. How difficult was this phase and how has it changed you as a player and as a person?
CP: It was one of the most challenging phases of my life as I missed over six months of cricket due to injury. Due to that long break I had to start from scratch as I lost my rhythm due to it. It wasn’t batting alone, but I had to start fielding and work on my fitness from scratch. I worked hard and believed that I had the talent to make it to the Indian team. The main aim was to get back and I put in the hard yards. For that, I thank my family, particularly my father (Arvind Pujara, a former Saurashtra cricketer), who supported me through the tough phase. He has trained me since I was young and has supported me through my success and failures.
CC: You are a product of the U-19 World Cup. What significance does that experience have on a young player and how much of an influence it had on you?
CP: Winning the Man-of-the-series award at the 2006 Under-19 World Cup put me in the limelight. What it majorly did was that it gave me the confidence that I if I could do it at the Under-19 level, I could do it at the international level as well. Ultimately, you have to play the game of cricket. If you start well at a young age, then you have a good chance of doing well at the international level as well.
CC: India had dominated the 2006 Under-19 World Cup, but faltered in the all-important final failing to chase down a paltry score of 110. The big question is: What happened there?
CP: I remember that game clearly. We were 19 for six at one stage in the run-chase. Since we had dismissed them for a score of 109, we had to bat before lunch. In that phase, the Pakistan bowlers were bowling brilliantly and we lost too many wickets early on. Once you lose six wickets so early, it is almost impossible to chase down a target. If we had survived the first 10 overs, it wasn’t a big total at all. If you see the scorecards of our run through the tournament, we were the dominant side. One bad session was enough. It was that fateful hour that cost us the game – where we didn’t bat well at all.
CC: You were the star for India at that tournament and went on to become a domestic run-machine. However, some of your team-mates from that batch (Piyush Chawla, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja) went on to play for India before you did. In comparison, do you think your call-up was a touch late?
CP: I don’t want to comment on that as it is the past and one doesn’t have to worry about it. It also depends on what the team needs for example, Chawla is a leg-spinner and Jadeja is an all-rounder. This is why it is tough to say that my chance could have come earlier. I had to keep performing at the domestic level, and when my chance came on the big stage, I was ready for it. The call came at a time when I was mature and ready to take on the challenge.
CC: In your maiden innings in Test cricket, you were dismissed for only four runs, courtesy a delivery that kept really low. Being a debutant, did you feel that the transition to the international stage is going to take some time?
CP: Not really because I was doing well for India A and I was confident. I had faced international bowlers at the A level and had performed well. The delivery that dismissed me in my first innings was unplayable and stayed too low. I was batting well then at the domestic level, so the doubts didn’t creep in. Going into the second innings, I was under some pressure as I was dismissed cheaply in the first essay. I told myself that I shouldn’t think too much and play my natural game. Rest would be taken care – and it turned out well.
CC: In the second innings of that game, you were promoted to No 3 in a crucial run-chase. When were you told that you would walk in at three? Did you take anybody’s advice before scripting that remarkable innings?
CP: I was told on the final day of the Test – when we were chasing 207 for a win. During the warm-ups I was told that I would bat at that spot as Suresh Raina and myself were at numbers six and five and were inexperienced. The team wanted Rahul Dravid to bat in the lower order to make sure there is more stability. I didn’t speak to anyone on that particular morning as I didn’t have enough time. Mentally I was ready for it because I wanted to bat in the second innings. I felt that if I batted at five, I wouldn’t get the opportunity. When MS (Dhoni) informed me about the promotion, I was happy to get the chance.
CC: You told Karthik Parimal, my colleague at Cricketcountry, about your triple against Orissa and the 96 at West Indies. However, one of your more famous knocks is a hundred you scored against Karnataka at Brabourne Stadium which helped Saurashtra win the game while chasing a big score in the fourth innings. Where would you rate that knock?
CP: That knock is now on the second spot on my list. The 96 not out I scored in the West Indies recently is my best I think because we were eight down and felt we would lose the match. I batted with the tail and helped seal the victory. Shami Ahmed and I had a good partnership that took us from troubled waters to victory.
CC: During one of the games at the Indian Premier League (IPL), 2012 we saw you playing an upper-cut for six. You are known to play by the copybook. But, are you open to innovative shots or you will stick to the textbook?
CP: I believe one has to be innovative at times. My strength is to play the ball according to its merit, but that doesn’t mean I will not attempt innovative strokes. I will continue to back my strength. Also, there is a way to hit a six. I strongly believe lofted shot down the ground can get you six, so can a risky one.
CC: Your prolific run doesn’t start at the Under-19 level – in fact it goes back a long way. Where did you start scoring the mountain of runs in age group cricket?
CP: In my debut game for Saurashtra at the Under-14 level, I scored a triple hundred and it just took off from there. From that point onwards, I have been consistent at Under-16 and the Under-19 levels. But, that triple hundred was a major development. As a young boy, it gave me tremendous belief that I could make a career in cricket and become successful.
(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a club-level cricketer with an analytic mind and a sharp eye. It was this sharpness which spotted a wrong replay in IPL4 resulting in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. Some of his analytical pieces have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. Nishad can also be followed on Twitter)