Kolkata: The countdown may have already started for the England Test series for Cheteshwar Pujara, but the cricket fans’ sense of awe about the ‘rock’ of Indian batting in Australia has not worn off altogether. The just-concluded series may not have been as prolific for India’s No.3 stalwart as the 2018 series, but there is no gainsaying about the impact of his presence - which the aggregate of 271 runs at an average of 33.88 can never illustrate adequately.
The four-Test series against Tim Paine’s men, which saw him face 928 deliveries, now places Pujara fifth in an interesting all-time list of visiting batsmen who have faced the most number of deliveries in Australia. The scenario is expected be a completely different one against England from February 5 though, with the ball expected to roll in favour of the hosts, but the Indian star is in no mood to commit if he is going to take any liberties with his dour, no-nonsense style.
‘‘See, I always try and play according to the situation, hence it’s early to say that. After having played so much cricket, I don’t need to think how I will approach each innings,’’ said Pujara, the owner of 6000-plus Test runs from 81 matches.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview over phone, the 33-year-old attributed his level of a monk-like patience and discipline to the hard yards that he had put in at first class cricket in India. ‘‘The key factors which helped me is that I have always led a very disciplined life and the maturity has come from the first class games. These helps you plan things in a better way. Sometimes you may face criticism for it (certainly a reference to his often poor strike-rate), but then you know what’s good for the team. Sometimes, if I feel that I need to take a little more time, I will continue to do it,’’ Pujara said as an insight about his philosophy to batting.
The tinge of regret in his voice was understandable as he had often been at the receiving end for his so-called ‘slow’ batting - with his half-century in Sydney coming in for a fair bit of criticism. Was it a conscious effort on his part in a batting line-up devoid of Virat Kohli to bat out the time? ‘‘No, not all the time. If you don’t want the opposition to run away with the game, the only way is to bat time and minimise their chances of winning it and then go for your chances. In Sydney, I actually got out at the arong time.
‘‘Unfortunately for me, I had come into this Test series with just one first class match in Australia. I didn’t play any competitive cricket for eight months before that and it’s not easy...for whatever time you spend at the nets, time in the middle is the most important thing. The first two Tests, hence, were not easy for me but ultimately, I got my rhythm back and we saw the difference in the last two matches,’’ Pujara said.
However, given India’s record at home against England whom they had wallopped 4-0 in the 2016 home series, India are expected to have an edge as they go into the series. ‘‘Playing in India, there is an advantage but you cannot take the England team lightly as they have done well here in the past. They have recently played in Sri Lanka and done well for themselves, hence I feel it will be a competitive series. We need to try and focus on our game and execute our plans rather than worry about the opposition’s preparedness,’’ said Pujara, a member of the Indian Test team’s core group.
‘‘We don’t need to worry alright, but we can’t expect to win all the Test matches at home. We need to work hard and we are ready for it,’’ he said.
An erstwhile teammate of Joe Root, the in-form England captain during his Yorkshire stint, Pujara is hugely appreciative of the England star. ‘‘Root is a great player, with a great work ethic and a nice person. He just loves to bat, and let’s not forget that he had got the exposure from a very young age - right from 2012. However, at the same time, our bowlers will surely try to work something out to get him out as early as possible,’’ Pujara observed.
After being around for more than a decade, he has been an integral member of the Indian team’s high points in the journey of Tests - though his exploits in the back-to-back series wins in Australia would certainly take the cake. Asked to compare his performance in the two series, Pujara was caught in two minds - for a change.
‘‘I would say that both series very challenging, Australia, a great Test side, gave nothing away, while their bowling line-up is one of the strongest in the world. The unique quality of the recent tour was that our youngsters delivered whenever they got a chance - be it on debut or in only their second or third Test matches. A lot of credit for this goes to Ranji Trophy competition, the Under-19 and ‘A’ squad’s tours,’’ said Pujara.
A staunch believer in boosting the first class structure of the country, he had been the captain of the Saurashtra team which won the last Ranji Trophy against Bengal in the final in early 2020. ‘‘You see, Ranji is the most important tournament to bring up better Test players while from IPL, you can pick up white ball players. Ranji has been very competitive and I feel that any player who plays for India should play it once in a while,’’ he observed. However, it seems that the premier state level competition has been called off by the BCCI on Friday.
It would be a fascinating year for someone like Pujara during which India would be taking on England in two Test series - first the one at home and then the reciprocal one in August in England. It’s one of the frontiers which the Kohli-led India has not been able to dominate like Down Under and Pujara wants to set this anomaly right.
‘‘If we look at the last England tour, I got a 100 and then a 50...I have been batting well there. I am much more confident now. In England, they are big followers of Test cricket and I have a lot of known faces there as I have played a lot County cricket. It’s a cricket-loving country. As an Indian team, it will be very exciting to win a series there,’’ he added.