Galle: Having shared the dressing room with Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara says that one can never stop being a student of the game. "From the legends (Tendulkar and Dravid), one thing I learnt was that they always worked hard on their game. Many of them scored more than 10,000 runs and they way they were still working hard on the game, always trying to improve their game. They were all grounded and they were trying to support young players. Their work ethic, determination and pride in representing the country was always there," said Pujara.
The contribution of former Saurashtra Ranji cricketer Arvind Pujara in his son Cheteshwar's career is well-documented and as he gears up for his 50th Test, the dependable No 3 is happy that his "worst critic" is no longer as strict as he used to be.
"My father has always been my best and worst critic. At times, he has been very critical but now we have come to an understanding, where we always speak and we come to a conclusion. And he is not very strict anymore," the normally intense Pujara spoke about his father's contribution as he prepared for his coveted landmark.
In 49 Tests thus far, Pujara has scored 3966 runs at an average of 52.18, inclusive of 12 hundreds. The last of those centuries came in the recently concluded first Test at Galle that India won by 304 runs inside four days. "It has been a wonderful journey so far. Playing the 50th Test match for the country will be a proud moment for me. Yes, there have been ups and downs but looking at my recent (good) form, I will be keen to score some runs in my 50th Test," said Pujara.
For Pujara, his seven-year international career has been a start-stop one till 2015. The early phase has been marred by knee injuries. "Getting injured was the most challenging time of my career. I was out for six months due to a knee injury and then again in 2011, when I was out for another six months. Overall, I wasn't able to play for a year, which was really tough on me," Pujara recalled those early days of hardship.
"When you get injured, you need to get that rhythm going for you again as your concentration goes down. Injury was the toughest part of my career but now I have come out of it and I am working hard on my fitness," he added. Pujara termed his 145 on comeback during the 2015 series in Sri Lanka as a career-defining one as he has been getting runs post that innings.
"When I got a hundred in Sri Lanka, in 2015, everything changed. After that, I think, even in domestic cricket, I have scored some runs. When you start playing domestic cricket and start scoring big runs, you gain a lot of confidence. "You know what are the changes required in your game and if you have made some changes in your game, then you can try and implement those things in domestic cricket. I think playing domestic cricket did help me," assessed Pujara.
There was a phase where he could not convert good starts and Rahul Dravid just advised me to continue the way I was batting. "There was nothing wrong with my technique because after that I spoke to Rahul (Dravid) bhai, who just told me that you should continue the way you have been playing. I just trusted my game, worked hard on it and I was just one innings away," said Pujara.
What has been reassuring for the Rajkot right-hander is that everyone in the Indian team was convinced that he will be back among runs. "When you are playing for the Indian team, everyone wants you to perform and everyone did support me. There was a time when, I didn't score many runs. But everyone was confident that I would make a comeback. When I played my comeback Test and scored runs, they came and said "We all knew that you will score these runs'. I was really happy to hear that."
When asked about his favourite innings in the 49 Tests gone by, Pujara recalled: "There have been many but I remember a couple of them - the first Test hundred against New Zealand at Hyderabad and then 92 against Australia in the recent Test series (at Bangalore). It was a match-winning score and then the entire series turned on its head. It's the toughest series that I have been a part of."
His first South Africa tour was also special. "My first away tour after making my debut in 2011 was to South Africa. Facing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel was the toughest part of my career. I learnt and when I went there again in 2013, it was a different ballgame altogether. But yes 2011 was tough," he added.
Looking ahead, Pujara is confident that when the India team hits the rough road to South Africa, England and Australia, next year, the team will be ready to take those formidable opposition head on. "It will make a big difference because as a team, you want players, who are experienced enough. When we first toured South Africa, New Zealand and England (2014-15), we were a young team. We didn't know what to expect from the opposition and sometimes we also didn't know what were our strengths in such conditions.
"But now when we go back there again, we will have a clear game plan. Our bowlers will know which areas to bowl and even as a batting unit, we will be very confident and clear with our game plans. I think having that experience of playing more Test matches (overseas) will help us," he concluded....