A friend was once narrating observations about big cat behaviour from her recent visit to the jungles of Kenya, and it was quite educational to learn how, as opposed to the cheetah (which is right out there, going about its hunting like a casual stroll in the park), the leopard is a discreet felid with a preference to stay in hiding. But underneath this tranquil demeanour is a majesty that comes to the fore when in pursuit of its quarry.
I found myself thinking of this as I waited in the lobby of a Mumbai hotel, ahead of a conversation with the Indian Test cricket team’s prolific number three and the highest rungetter for the country in a season – Cheteshwar Pujara. Notwithstanding criticism of his ‘slow’ batting, the 29-year old has gone about his cricket like a leopard, piling up tons of runs en route his record-breaking tally of 1,316 first-class runs, at an average of 62.67, in the recently concluded 2016/17 season. And even his blasé persona seems cut from the same nonchalant cloth as his on-field self.
With a million dollar smile that lights up along with the camera’s flash, there’s also a certain quirk to ‘Puji’s’ personality. The Rajkot lad, who’s sporting a hipster beard these days, is vociferous during Playstation battles with his teammates, enjoys Netflixand-chill sessions with his supportive wife Puja and is counting the days until he gets his college degree. After an excruciatingly long but highly successful home season, he reflected on a triumphant comeback, revealed the ‘other side’ of his calm facade and discussed the Indian Premier League, county cricket and more.
How do you look back at the home season?
It was a fantastic season. Personally, everything started with my first Duleep Trophy double hundred. After that, I got back my confidence and concentration. As a batsman, you need a rhythm. At times, if you’re not scoring big hundreds, you feel that you’re not at your best. Then I scored a hundred in the first Test against New Zealand, and everything went as I had planned in the England and Australia series’ that followed.
How do you plan to build on this success ahead of the overseas tours?
I will try and play some county games, which will help me gain valuable experience in those conditions. I’ve already played with Derbyshire and Yorkshire previously. The bowlers there are not express pace, but are rather accurate with their lines and lengths. I haven’t had good tours to England and New Zealand, but now I’m more mature. And now that I’ve scored at home, I should do well there too. If the opportunity arrives, I’ll play both the four-day and one day matches, excluding T20s.
Have you changed your approach to the game? Who and what has contributed to this?
Apart from my father (former Ranji cricketer Arvind Pujara), I would like to thank two people for helping me evolve my batting – Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble. When I was going through a difficult phase after being dropped from the Indian Test team, Dravid was the coach of the India A team that I was leading. He pointed out certain things that helped me more mentally than technically. It was after this that I scored that 145 in Sri Lanka.
Then I was again dropped in the West Indies. By then, Anil bhai had become the coach, and his inputs helped me gain more confidence, notably when it came to my intent on the pitch. He told me clearly that you don’t have to worry about your strike rate. You just make sure that the bowler doesn’t settle down. Personally, I feel that a lot also depends on the situation of the game. You have to plan your innings; if the team is down at 30 for 2, you can’t think about smashing the ball, but if you’re at 100 for 1, you can play more aggressively.
Talking of aggression, what was the mood like during the hotly-contested Australia series recently?
We had a clear game plan when it came to sledging. We decided that if they do it, we wanted to give it back to them. The good thing is that we had Anil bhai, who helped balance out things; because Virat (Kohli) is really aggressive and he will go after the opposition tooth and nail. On the other hand, the Aussies were more focussed on sledging than the game at times.
Who are the toughest bowlers that you have faced?
Recently, I think Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon have been really consistent. Lyon has particularly improved tremendously as a cricketer. Even England has a great lineup. When we visit them, the duo of James Anderson and Stuart Broad is extremely dangerous. We will also visit South Africa later this year, and they boast of a great bowling unit. I think facing Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn in South Africa has been the most challenging for me in my career.
The IPL is the talk of the town, but unfortunately you aren’t a part of the tournament this season. Why do you think you didn’t find suitors at the auction?
It’s something which is not in my hands. What I can do is improve as a T20 player. I got a hundred for Indian Oil in a T20 game, and also played well in the Syed Mushtaque Ali Trophy. But I don’t really get bothered if I don’t get picked. Is it about more than just cricket? I always keep saying that this is a perception that will change, but I need opportunities for that to happen. Even in my List A career and the sort of bowlers that I’ve faced on India A tours, I’ve been fairly successful against them. There has also been enough support from cricketing greats. I’m working hard for it, and I’m confident that I will get chances.
What are your ambitions when it comes to the Indian ODI and T20 teams?
We’ve been playing good cricket when it comes to ODIs and T20s. So obviously, I also want to be a part of the winning team and a World Cup-winning side. It’s always a dream for any cricketer.
What do you make of the Rahul Dravid comparisons?
It’s a great compliment to be compared to him. He’s a great person and a great player, who has scored more than 10,000 runs in both ODIs and Tests, while I’m yet to prove myself. I try and learn from him but I’m not a fan of comparisons. I’d like to create my identity as Cheteshwar Pujara.
You were tagged as the silent warrior of the team by Sachin Tendulkar. How difficult is it to live up to this image around the likes of Virat Kohli?
I believe that you should be natural all the time. So someone like Virat, who has always been expressive right since his Under-19 days, has to remain aggressive to perform. You perform at your best when you are in your element. So if I’m being called a silent warrior, I don’t let that get into my head. What matters more than these tags are wins, like the memorable series victory versus Australia, where we came back from behind to beat them.
Is there another side to you as well?
There is. I’m very competitive and loud when it comes to PlayStation. You will never see me as expressive on the field. Different sports bring out different sides of me. Even when I’m bowling in the nets, I will casually sledge the batsmen. I play table tennis, tennis and badminton, and my wife accompanies me when I get the time. Even during a series, I use all the sports options available in the facility where we’re put up.
What PlayStation games do you play?
I used to play tennis on the previous PS. Now I play Uncharted and some mission games as well. But most of the time it is FIFA.
Who are your partners in crime?
Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar), Wriddhi (Wriddhiman Saha), Karun (Nair) and Virat are the PS pros in the dressing room. Vijay is improving his game as he has been losing against me, while KL (Rahul) is also getting better. These two are still trying to break into the senior PS team (laughs).
What are your other passions?
I hardly switch on the TV. But while touring, I mostly binge on Netflix. Right now, with my wife, I’m following Iron Fist, Daredevil, Suits and House of Cards; I’m also waiting for the new Game of Thrones season to come out, and also the third season of Narcos. I also like reading. It’s mostly non-fiction or autobiographies from sportsmen. I’ve read the ones by Andre Agassi and Adam Gilchrist.
Do you watch any Bollywood movies?
We’re more selective about it because honestly there’s not much time. But you can’t miss something like a Dangal.
We hear you have a very strict diet plan?
During a series, I’m very particular about my food. I make sure that I have dinner by 8 or 8:30 pm and go to bed within a couple of hours. Eight hours of sleep is essential. When at home though, I have a cheat meal, once in a while. It’s mostly a Gujarati delicacy called gathiya, prepared by my mother-in-law.
What sort of a role has your family played in your success?
It plays a huge role. My father was the reason behind me becoming a cricketer. I follow a routine which I will continue to even when I retire. It’s something that my mother taught me. Even my wife and my in-laws are very supportive. They get a little nervous but with time, they’ve also realised that failure is a part of the game.
How do you cope with failure?
Till two years ago, I couldn’t deal with failure, especially in the 2014 season. But the moment you start accepting failure, you start moving forward. That’s how you begin focussing on what lies ahead, instead of what went wrong in the past. That’s what has helped me find success lately.
What advice do you have for aspiring cricketers?
You just have to keep trying. Before my own debut, I had to play tons of domestic cricket. I scored many double and triple hundreds at junior levels and was even the man of the series in the Under-19 WC. So to the youngsters, I would like to tell them that it’s a process, and they need to keep working hard even if the chances don’t come immediately.
Is it possible to strike a balance between cricket and academics?
After my 10th standard, it was really difficult to strike a balance between academics and cricket. I am yet to get an undergraduate degree. But yes, I’m keen on studying further. I want to get an MBA, ultimately. However, many cricketers, including Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and R Ashwin have managed to study through their cricketing years.
Do you have any post-retirement plans?
I’m very keen on social service. So if I’m capable enough, after retirement, I want to do something outside cricket. I will sit down with my wife one day and we’ll figure out how to go about things. I might be running a business under her leadership too.
Ravi Shastri said that a Rs 2 crore salary is peanuts for a performer like you. Any reactions?
For me, it’s always about performing for the Indian team – a feeling that is incomparable with any monetary gains. The financial aspect is also important, but personally it’s about the experiences, the sort of fun that we have in the dressing room. You can’t buy these things with money.