A 'second debut' for Cheteshwar Pujara
Cheteshwar Pujara, recalled into the Test squad for the New Zealand series, is treating his comeback as his "second debut". One of the impressive young batsmen to have come out in the last five years on the domestic circuit, Pujara was a popular choice to take a place in the Indian middle order once the top guns walked out of the game. And with two berths opening up after the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, Pujara feels he is "motivated and passionate" while not being fussy about his position in the batting order.
Pujara, who made a match-winning debut in Bangalore against Australia in 2010, played just two further Tests before a knee injury in IPL 2011 sidelined him for six months. Recovering from the surgery, he missed out on the home series against West Indies late last year, but was eager to get a ticket for the Australia tour. However, the selectors did not have enough confidence since Pujara, who plays for Saurashtra, had not had quality match practice.
Pujara made just 200 runs during last season's Ranji Trophy, but stronger performances on the recent India A tour of the West Indies, where he topped the run-charts, put him back in the reckoning. "I have been working hard on making a comeback. It has been delayed because there were not many games but I did whatever I could in domestic format and with India A. But I do not want to rush. I'm going to be calm and play my natural game," Pujara told ESPNcricinfo immediately after being picked for the Tests.
Making a comeback was never going to be easy. Pujara was hurt by some pundits questioning his fitness levels. But, working alongside his father Arvind, his driving force and mentor, Pujara made the finer adjustments to his batting. "When you come back after a six-month lay-off it is difficult to straightaway catch the rhythm. You need to start from the scratch. But once you cross those hurdles then you get mentally tough," Pujara said. He knew he could not throw away a lifetime of hard work. "I am fully motivated. This is the moment I have always worked hard for. There is hunger and passion about playing at the highest level. It is once again a debut game for me."
Mentally adept and patient, Pujara, who is only 24, has blended those qualities with his batting skills which have remained sound and fluent from his age-group cricket days. Though the likes of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have made more headlines in the last year, Pujara has remained a favourite to take the important No. 3 slot vacated by Dravid. It was the same position he batted in the nets today in Hyderabad during the Indian training session, with Kohli at No. 5; the other two contenders - Rahane and S Badrinath - batted late down the order.
However, Pujara does not want to be picky about his position in the batting order. "It is a team game so most of the time you have to see the comfort of the team, not your own. As a batsman I need to be flexible. I am a youngster who is making a comeback and not someone who is settled in the batting order so I should not be demanding. Yes, once I prove myself at a particular position then I can say I would like to bat at this number."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo