Couch Talk 191 (Play)
Guest: Chesteshwar Pujara
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk, everyone. I am your host Subash Jayaraman and I am joined today on the show by India’s Test No. 3 batsman, Cheteshwar Pujara. Welcome to the show, Cheteshwar.
Chesteshwar Pujara (CP): Thank you.
SJ: It is a pleasure having you on.
In the times we live in, with social media, comparisons are inevitable, especially in the sporting arena. It happened with you as well; as soon as you hit the cricket scene, you were tagged as the “next Rahul Dravid”. Both of you were tabbed as defensive batsmen even though you have all the strokes in your repertoire and can play at all tempos. How do you navigate through these stereotyping and not let that affect how you approach your batting?
CP: Personally, I do not believe in comparisons. Rahul bhai is someone I grew up watching. It is an honour to be compared with him and I’ve learned so many things from him. He was very helpful when I became part of the team, he was playing when I made my debut. It was one of my dreams to play alongside Rahul bhai. Even after he retired, through his roles as coach of India A team and mentor of other teams, he has always helped me, and has always been approachable. I’ve learned so many things from him but I wouldn’t like comparing myself to him. He has also advised me to “try to be who you are, rather than trying to copy someone.” I’ve always believed in playing my natural game, and yes, there are so many similarities, especially when you are batting at No. 3 because you have to see through the new ball; you have to bat time if the pitch is difficult. I don’t believe it is the right comparison because he has scored more than 10,000 runs in Tests and ODIs, and I still have a long journey ahead.
SJ: You are veteran in the side – third most experienced after Ishant Sharma and Virat Kohli. With experience you know who you are and how to compartmentalize the comparisons and other things; but when you were new in the side, how did you process through the comparisons and stereotyping?
CP: Even when I was younger, I focused on things which I had to do to be successful at the international level. It is a journey, being an international cricketer. You know there are so many things that will follow you through your career, and to make progress, you have to learn this game. So, as a youngster, I focused on learning this game and progressing in my career rather than worrying about whether I’ll be able to fill Rahul bhai’s shoes or be as successful as him. I never thought about any such thing. But as I said, I’ve always wanted to learn from great players like Rahul bhai. I learned a lot from Sachin Paaji. All these players guided me a lot and that’s all you could want as a youngster in the side.
SJ: There is also another stereotype that Pujara is not suited for T20s and that “he can’t play T20”. It is not a criticism of you but people say things. It’s possible that playing T20 may not even be on your radar or that you may not be willing to sacrifice your [Test] batting to suit T20s because we have seen batsmen trying to change their techniques to play T20s and end up not successful in any of them or only succeed in some formats. How do you approach that?
CP: If you look at recent domestic T20 cricket, you’d see that I’d scored some runs. I’ve always believed that I can play white ball cricket, there is no doubt about it. Obviously I am still learning – there is a lot to learn about batting in the shorter formats since I specialized in Test cricket. At the same time, it is only marginal changes you have to make in your game to be successful in shorter formats which I have done. I have seen the success in domestic cricket and I am confident that I’ll be successful if I get an opportunity in any of the IPL teams or – if you look at it – I scored enough runs in white ball cricket when I played in County cricket. So, it is not about being successful in the shorter format. My List A record is quite good. I am very confident that I can be successful in all formats of the game but my priority will always be Test cricket.
SJ: I would like to get inside the head of ne of the successful batsmen in the world right now. I’ve spoken to former batsmen who’ve talked about the need to switch on and switch off, and to conserve energy so that one could focus for longer periods. One anecdote was from a former Indian opener who said when playing against Shoaib Akhtar, he wouldn’t look at Shoaib Akhtar till the last few steps of his long run up and that’s when he would switch on. What is your “switch on-switch off” process?
CP: I believe that one has to be in their own zone. When I am batting, I do not think much. I try to avoid thoughts – positive or negative. I like to be in my zone and focus on the ball when the bowler is running in. Once I’ve played that ball, I don’t really need to worry about whether I was beaten, whether I middled that ball or whether I’ve hit that ball for a four or a six. Once I’ve played that ball, I try and forget it and focus on the next ball when the bowler starts his run-up. So, for me, I don’t force myself to try to switch on and off. When I am batting well, I am in that zone where I am concentrating on the ball when the bowler starts his run-up.
SJ: In terms of being in that zone – it is not like you walk in and you are there; it is a process and you have to practice getting there. I’ve heard that you do Yoga, read books and do other things like breathing exercises to get into that zone when you bat.
CP: Yes, I have a daily routine. I do prayers every single day. I do Yoga every day which helps me eliminate my thoughts when I am batting. Whether it is positive or negative thought, it can slow you down when batting – your footwork, your technique and your movement. So, what I try and do is that I have a very good routine that helps me avoid any thoughts when I want to. At the same time, you have to be confident when you are in the middle. To be confident, you need to prepare well. And preparations is one of the important aspects of my cricketing journey. The moment I’ve prepared well, I am confident, then I can eliminate my thoughts. It depends on the kind of life you live; it reflects in the way you play in the middle. I try and make sure I follow right routines which includes, obviously, my daily prayer; it’s a kind of meditation, and I do Yoga which helps me in many other ways.
SJ: I want to go back to an earlier point you made about focusing on the ball. When does a top class batsman start tracking the ball? Could break down the process a bit?
CP: Well, each and every batsman is different; I’ve spoken to many batsmen and they have their own method [of focusing on the ball and tracking it]. For me, I just try and observe things. I try and look at the ball when the bowler starts his run-up but the fierce focus is when he takes his jump and he is about to deliver the ball. You have to have that fierce focus at that very last moment [before delivery].
SJ: You field in the slips which is a specialized fielding position. You have to focus on the ball and react to it based on the delivery, the bowler, the stroke played, the condition and your anticipation of what stroke is to be played, etc. When you are standing that far back, when does your tracking of the ball start?
CP: It is quite similar to when you face the ball but when fielding in slips, your fierce focus needs to be after the ball has been delivered and the batsman is about to play the shot. You still have to be relaxed when you are fielding in the slips because you just react to the ball that will come at you. Every single ball is not going to come at you but as a fielder, you expect every ball to. At the same time, since the number of balls you have to focus as a fielder are too many, you try and relax till the bowler has delivered the ball. You try and focus once the bowler has delivered the ball, and as a batsman, I know when the ball is pitched in the right areas and the batsman is going to play at the ball and there is a very good chance that the ball is going to come at me. Sometimes, you get that additional time because as a batsman you know how the pitch is behaving and the kind of bounce the surface has. If it’s the new ball, you are always alert but you have to focus even when the ball is old. It’s a tough position to field at because you have to be focused throughout the day but at the same time, the most important thing when you are fielding in slips is to be relaxed. When I am fielding in the slips, I need to switch on and switch off.
SJ: Is there a mental trigger for that? Once the shot is played and the ball is not coming to you, do you switch off?
CP: Yes, you start talking to your teammates, whether it’s the wicket keeper or another fielder at second or third slip. It is important to talk [about] what is happening in the game. Sometimes, we discuss our game plans. Sometimes, we discuss about any other thing – it could be personal, or anything else but to just be relaxed between the balls, you need to talk to your teammates.
SJ: Earlier, you talked about your preparations. What is a good nets session for Cheteshwar Pujara? When you walk to nets – wherever in the world – what is it that you want to get out of that training session? When is it that you say, “I have done everything I needed to do and I can now walk out of the nets.”
CP: Well, I’d say, it is a right combination of quality and quantity. At times, as a batsman, you feel like you need to practice more. And other times, you hit a few balls and in 10-15 minutes you feel like, “I have done enough. I need a break. My body movements are perfect. I am seeing the ball well, I am timing the ball well.” At those times, you don’t need to practice much. But at times, you just feel like you need to bat, and bat, and bat and you feel that you need to correct a few things. So, it depends on your form, and how your mental space is because batting is not just about physical ability but is also mental; if you feel confident and think everything is fine, you walk in to bat and you are confident. So, sometimes, you spend a lot of time in the nets and other times, you feel [soon] that you have done enough.
SJ: Have there been times when you have had the scores but you felt like you need to spend more time in the nets because you want to feel that you are in nick?
CP: Yes, there are times even after I scored a hundred, I felt like I needed to work on a few things which will help me score better in the next series or the next Test match. So, I’ll make sure I keep on batting [in the nets] for half an hour or 45 minutes, or even for an hour. It depends on what I feel as an individual. If I am working on something specific, you need more time in the nets because repetition is very important as a batsman as you need to train your muscle – the muscle memory. Ultimately, you are reacting to a ball. So, you need to make sure everything is in its place before you try that thing in the game. So, there are times when I am batting well or scoring runs, I spend a lot of time in the nets.
SJ: Conversely, you may not have had the scores, you felt yourself to be in fine nick. Has there been series where you thought, “Yeah, I am not getting the scores but I did everything I could and I feel good about my batting”?
CP: Yeah, it has happened to me many times in my career. I believe that sometimes you are batting well and you get a good ball – and bowlers are allowed to bowl a good ball and get you out – and so you obviously have to give credit to them. At the same time, you think about that dismissal: “Whether I could do something about it?”If the answer is “No”, then you stick to what you’ve been doing in the past and not worry about that dismissal very much, because if you get a good ball, you get a good ball; you don’t need to worry too much about it. Sometimes, when you start worrying too much about your failures, you tend to put too much pressure on yourself. Over a period of time, I have realized that I am dealing with my failures in a manner that I can progress in my career and still not put too much pressure on myself.
SJ: We started this interview with stereotypes, and there is another stereotype in the world that Indian batsmen are great players of spin bowling. There have been some great players of spin from India but that does not apply to every player from India. You have a very good backfoot game [that allows you to play pace well] but the way you handled Nathan Lyon in Australia [2018-19] set the series up for India. Could you talk about the essentials of a batting technique that handles as good a bowler as Lyon in his conditions that well?
CP: Having played Nathan Lyon in the past helped me prepare well, this time. He is someone who has improved a lot as a bowler over a period of time. I remember playing him in India in 2010, or 2012-13… and he has improved a lot in bowling [spin] in Australia. Having played him earlier, it allowed me to prepare well. I had some strategies which obviously I cannot discuss here. He is a great bowler and we have a very good competition especially on a turning track. As I said, he’s improved a lot and it’s always challenging to face him, and the way we played him in Australia as a team and the way I played him, I am really pleased with that.
SJ: Let’s say a junior player comes to you and says, he is struggling against spin, and not against any particular bowler and asks you for a couple of pointers on how to get better at facing spin. How’d you go about advising that player to get better at batting against spin?
CP: One thing is, you need to practice a lot against spin. As Asian batsmen, when we go abroad and face fast bowlers on seaming conditions, we find it challenging. Over a period of time, I went and played in county cricket, to gain that experience. So, if you want to be successful against spin bowlers, you need to have such conditions at home, or wherever you are practising. At the same time, you need to understand your own technique; the shots that you can play again and the shots that you need to avoid. I can only guide a youngster after seeing him bat because every batsman’s technique is different, their temperament is different and their strokeplay is different. Once I have a look at them, then, I can guide them better, but it always about having more experience of playing against different kinds of spin bowlers which as Indian batsmen we get a lot. Especially, when I started my career in first class cricket, we used to have some great spinners who used to bowl really well. I used to find it difficult initially but over a period of time, I figured out my technique of how to deal with that.
SJ: There is a story about Sachin Tendulkar on how he prepared for Shane Warne in 1998 by having leg spinners bowling around the wicket into the rough. Has there been any specific training that you did in preparation for a series at home or abroad?
CP: Yes… I can mention the recent Australia series. I had some plans and I spent before the series, hours and hours in the nets to prepare for that series. Obviously, I got the results. Sometimes, you prepare well but you don’t get the results – it happens. I believe in preparing and that’s the most important thing for me as a cricketer. So, before any series, I’ll always have my game plan and preparations; whether it’s a big series or small, or an important Test match in a series or a first class game, I try to make sure depending on the bowlers I am going to face, I try and prepare accordingly.
SJ: We are going through a period of some fine fast bowlers around the world, including some in your team. Has there been spells of fast bowling that you have faced in your career – whether you achieved success facing it or not – that you felt “That was fantastic bowling!”?
CP: I would say, when I went to South Africa in 2011, and Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were at their peak, I was finding it difficult to face them. First of all, it was my first tour to South Africa; my first tour abroad. I didn’t know how I’d score runs; I didn’t know how I’d face them. Although I was able to leave a few balls, survive at the crease for a few hours, but at some stage I felt, “how do I play them? I am finding it difficult.” After the series ended, I spoke to some of the great Indian players and went back to India to work on my game. When I went back to South Africa again in 2013, I was successful because I knew what to expect from South African fast bowlers and I had my technique and gameplan ready for such conditions.
SJ: That delivery from Steyn to you, that started on legstump and defeated you, and got you out LBW in front of offstump, it is still tattooed in my brain. Has there been passages of play that were really difficult like that you were able to survive and get through and make a really good score?
CP: I still remember the Test series against Australia in India in 2017. We had lost the first Test match of the series in Pune and Australia were in a commanding position in the second Test match in Bangalore, and myself and Ajinkya [Rahane] had a very good partnership. I think I scored 92 or 96, I can’t remember the exact number but that is one of the best Test innings I have played. I would rate that as one of the top five innings I have played in my career. That Test match might be best Test match I may have played in India, and in my entire Test career.
SJ: Usually, when you ask players about their favorite innings, typically they recall innings where they made very big scores. Has there been innings where you score few runs but you recall you played really well?
CP: I would still answer this the same way [as before]. That particular Test match where I scored 90-odd against Australia in Bangalore is one of my favourite innings because the pitch was difficult, the conditions, though familiar, but the way they were bowling, I think, they put us under a lot of pressure. To deal with that pressure, that was one of the most intense Test series that I’ve been a part of, and that innings, I’ll remember for a long, long time.
SJ: On that note, thank you so much being on Couch Talk podcast, Cheteshwar. I really appreciate your time, and I wish you all the very best.
CP: Thank you.