Cheteshwar Pujara interview: 'Your reaction to setbacks defines you as a person'
As Pujara gets set to play the 100th Test of his career, he speaks about the journey and what he has learned along the way
Cheteshwar Pujara's story is that of a cricketer who with his dedication and hard work moulded the circumstances in his favour. An equanimous personality, who knows how to take setbacks in his stride, the India No 3 will be celebrating his 100th Test cap during the second Test match at Delhi. It is only fitting that he is playing the milestone game against the tough Australia team, the opponents who have brought the best out of him.
Pujara’s performances on the tours of Australia, 2018-19 and 2020-21, have been carved in golden letters in Indian cricket history. As an individual, he remains true to his own beliefs, comfortable in your skin, never getting carried away by the style icons around in the dressing room.
When everyone wrote him off after the last South Africa series, he has made dramatic comeback, breaking open the door with a heap of runs in county cricket. It revealed a stubborn streak that has long been the essence of his batting.
We spoke to the India stalwart ahead of his 100th Test. Excerpts:
From a kid growing up playing cricket in Rajkot to 100 Test matches, it has been quite the journey...
It’s been an incredible journey playing for the Indian team for such a long time and it's not just about the number of Test matches. As a child I have always dreamt of playing for the Indian Test team, when I first got the opportunity in 2010 it became a dream come true moment. From there onwards it’s been an incredible journey. I have enjoyed each and every moment of it. There have been ups and downs, there have been many achievements along the way. The most important thing is my love for the game. Not many people get this opportunity to play for the Indian team. When you have this opportunity you always (try to) make your country proud, make your family proud. There are so many people who help you in your cricketing career, coaches I have worked with. I am thankful to all of them. It’s been a great journey so far.
19 hundreds and more than 7,000 runs and what do these numbers mean to you?
It means a lot though I am not someone who pays a lot of attention to milestones. When you come closer to a landmark that’s when you realise that you have played so many games. But when you are playing at the international level, each and every Test match is important. I try and pay attention to each and every game. So, for me it is not just about this 100th Test match. Not just 100, but after the 100th Test, each game after that is important. I am hoping this carries on as long as possible.
It’s kind of fitting that the 100th game is against Australia? They bring the best out of you.
Yes, you can say that. It is the best team in the world, I have made my debut against them so my first and the 100th Test will be against Australia. They are a competitive side. It is never easy to score runs against them. They are always very expressive, they are very talkative, they bring the best out of me. They always put up a fight, challenge you and I always enjoy that challenge.
Many opponents fear how you wear them down in a long series. Where does this grit and concentration come from?
I think there is a lot of preparation that goes before each and every Test series. I have learnt this over a period of time, imbibed it in my game from childhood. From a young age I have played a lot of first-class cricket. Over the years I have learnt that whenever I score, I score big. Whenever you score a hundred or 150, you have to concentrate for a longer period of time. That’s when I started realising, to play a longer innings you need a lot of fitness and a good temperament to be successful in the longer format. After that I have been paying lot of attention to my routine, my daily life.
That helps me improve my concentration, if you live a disciplined life, if you sleep on time, wake up on time, follow a certain routine. I have been doing yoga and pranayama, which has also helped me in my concentration. In cricket there are many things which are important. To improve concentration, you also need to pay attention what you do off the field.
The price you put on your wicket is unbelievable...
That comes from childhood also, when I get out (in Saurashtra), and the team used to collapse and we ended up losing the game. I realised that in cricket if you are a set batsman, then you have to ensure that your runs help the team, sometimes even a hundred is not enough, try and get to a double hundred, that will help out pressure on the opposition team because if you score a double hundred, your team will get 350 or 400 on the board. It is about ensuring you are putting your team in a comfortable position.
What are the moments you cherish the most?
There have been many important series that I have played, personally for me I will start with my debut game. There was a lot of pressure, I was nervous. When you are playing at the international level you want to make an impact. When I made 72 (in the second innings on debut) that was special.
The toughest Test series I have been part of has been 2016-17 against Australia in India, when we lost in Pune and came back to win in the second Test. The third Test was drawn and we went on to win the fourth at Dharamsala. There have been some great victories, 2018 in Australia, our first-ever victory in Australia, then again to win the Test series in Australia 2019-20 -- despite the fact we had so many injuries we won. Also having played at different venues, being successful in South Africa, in England, New Zealand, it gives you a lot of exposure and experience. Over a period, I have learnt so many things playing in different parts of the world.
How have you maintained your mindset, not influenced by what was happening around you, the chatter of strike rate or a flamboyant lifestyle to match some teammates?
One thing I always believed in is you have to be focussed on your game; you can’t think about what is being said outside. I try and stay away what is being said on the social media, whether it is positive or negative. As long as you know your methods, you are working hard on your game, you are disciplined enough to follow a certain routine, you are putting in enough number of hours to improve your game then you become confident. Then you are not worried about what’s happening outside. People will always have an opinion. I always respect that whether they are talking good or bad about me I don’t take it in a negative way. The best thing which has helped me is having a positive mindset. Even when someone criticises you, take it in a positive manner (that) I will work on my game, I will improve my game, I will become a better player, rather than getting into an argument or getting into some conflict with that person.
The toughest part of a cricketer’s career is when he is dropped from the team. How was the phase after not being picked after the South Africa series, did you think your career could end at 96?
Not at all. I always believed that I had it in me. I have always performed well. Even when I haven’t scored, even then my performances were reasonable enough. They were not great but they were not below par so it was just a matter of time where I started converting my starts into big ones. I had been scoring my 60s, 70s, 80s, so it was important to get big scores. I am someone who would try and control things which are in my hand and as a cricketer you can only work on your game, try and perform in each and every game you are playing and not think about what is happening outside. Whether you get picked or not as long you are working hard on your game. I knew the moment I get my rhythm back I will be able to do this again. It’s always about having that self-belief, working hard on the game, day in and day out.
I believe in God: when you are working towards something there will be a way for you as long as you are honest about what you are doing. You always get a way out. When I was playing for Sussex, I didn’t think about my comeback, I just wanted to do the best for Sussex and eventually those runs helped me gain the confidence and there was the opportunity to play for the Indian team again.
It is a dream you have lived together with your father, what will it mean for him (100th Test match)?
It will be a big achievement for him also, he has been my coach and it’s been a great journey so far. Even for him, his son playing his 100th Test match will be very special for him. He will be very happy but one thing we have always discussed: it’s always about striving for success, having the discipline in your preparation. Practice and preparation are important part of a cricketer’s career. If you are focused, every day if you are giving your best and learning something, if you are working towards something in each and every net session then you will see results in the game. As a coach, he has also taught me many things. It will be a proud moment for him.
Who are the toughest bowlers you have faced...
I will start with Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel when I first faced them in South Africa they were at their peak. I think those two have been the toughest, then James Anderson in England, Pat Cummins in Australia. Nathan Lyon has been one of the toughest spinners I have faced.
How have tough experiences shaped your career, losing your mother at an early age, having knee surgery on both knees at an early stage of your career?
Each and every experience teaches you something. Mentally I became stronger when I lost my mom. It is never easy to deal with such moments but mentally there is an impact. It teaches you to be stronger in life. You start valuing the persons a bit more.
When I first got injured (ACL injury) in 2009, I didn’t know how my career will pan out. I was stressed whether I will be able to play this game or not -- that was the first question I had. Fortunately, I recovered in six months’ time after my first my ACL injury. Then I had another ACL injury, on my right knee. After that mentally you start becoming stronger, you know there will be ups and downs. In your career as a sportsperson, you are bound to face some obstacles, but how you come back from that, how you deal with those challenges is important. How you react to such setbacks is something which defines you as a person. So those injuries have also taught me many things.
You started well, 72 on debut, two double hundreds in your first 11 Tests, a fine hundred against England at Wankhede in 2012, a hundred at Johannesburg, but then you struggled, what happened?
In 2014, I was finding it a little difficult, I was putting too much pressure on myself, there are time when you are scoring 50s, 60s but you still take it as a failure rather than just moving on from the failure. Sometimes you have to forget your failure and then move on, that is something which I failed to do at that time, after that I learnt. I learnt from my mistakes and with time everything fell into place.
The Southampton hundred (132* in 2018), was the turning point in your career during the long away cycle, conquering that challenge of batting well away from home?
It was a special one, scoring my first hundred in England, and also the circumstances. We were under a lot of pressure as a team, so I made sure I bat well with the tailenders and put up a decent total. We couldn’t defend eventually but we had our chances in the game, it was an important innings and I enjoyed it. I was working hard on start scoring runs overseas, I was working on a few things at that time and it paid off really well.
That gave me a lot of confidence that also made me realise that if I work on certain things, it will allow me to score runs anywhere in the world.
Your Brisbane innings (2021) is rated as one of the most courageous, taking so many blows on your body.
It is one of the most courageous innings I have played without any doubt. The pitch was tough, the conditions weren’t ideal to bat on, especially from one end. I wanted to ensure that I bat well on that particular day and either ensure a draw or if bat well we could win that game. I batted well in that period and I told myself as long as I am there, even if I get hit that’s okay, I will bat as long as possible and that will put the Australian team under pressure, that’s what happened.
From where does this grit come from?
There is a lot of love and passion for the game, representing your country there is a lot of pride in that and the series was on the line, at that time, that inner self belief, that drive always comes.
Not many people get that opportunity to play for the Indian team, when you have that opportunity, you want to ensure that you make an impactful performance for the team’s success, then no matter what happens you want to try your best.