'You can play your natural game at No. 3'
In his second Test, in 2010 in Durban, Cheteshwar Pujara hastened to play a pull off Lonwabo Tsotsobe even as the ball rushed on to him and kept rising. Mark Boucher caught the top edge and Pujara trudged back, dismissed for 19. Later, when he sat brooding in the dressing room, Rahul Dravid walked up and asked if he normally played such shots. "Not really," Pujara said, knowing the ball was not there to be hit, especially since it was outside off stump.
"[Dravid] told me I should play my natural game rather than playing too many shots, because if you are not good at something, then it is not worth playing that shot," Pujara says. "You should play to your strength, which is to hang around and play the shots to a loose ball, and not against a ball that is not there to be hit."
Pujara had learned an important lesson. "I felt it was not the right place, right time and not even the right format to play such a shot. We were playing on the fast pitches in South Africa, not the slower surfaces in India. I told myself I had to learn to play according to situation." He started to leave the ball more, and that felt natural.
At some point this week, Pujara might step into the No. 3 or No. 5 slots now vacant following the retirements of Dravid and VVS Laxman. Virat Kohli will occupy one of the two positions; Pujara will vie with Ajinkya Rahane and S Badrinath for the second. During training on the two days leading up to the first Test against New Zealand in Hyderabad, Pujara batted at No. 3.
He wants to make a mark on his return from injury and is unfussy about where he bats. "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 making a comeback, not someone settled in the batting order. So I should not be demanding. Once I prove myself at a particular position, then I can say I would like to bat at this and this number."
Mentally adept and patient, Pujara built his reputation by grinding down opponents in Ranji Trophy cricket for Saurashtra, for whom he bats at No. 4. In his first few years he found himself coming in with the new ball barely having lost its shine, as a weak Saurashtra top order faltered frequently. Although he hasn't had to come to his side's rescue too often in the last two years, Pujara has grown accustomed to the challenges of a top-order batsman.
"There is not much difference batting at No. 3 or 4, as I found out in my time at Saurashtra, where we used to be two down before ten overs." Pujara is aware of the demands of batting up the order, but he likes it better than the alternative. "It is a challenge, but in another way it is good. That is because you are not under pressure when you bat on top. If you are batting lower down, if you are in a good position then it is fine. But if you are 100 for 3 or 4, the bowlers are on top. The pressure is on you to get runs then. But if you are No. 3, you still can play safe and play your natural game, unlike when you are batting at No. 5 or 6, where you are left to bat with the tail."
Pujara is the sort of batsman who likes to spend time at the crease, tiring bowlers down and punishing loose deliveries. To him the biggest advantage of batting high up is that he likes to feel bat on ball, which he can do against the new ball. "Especially in Indian conditions, the old ball does not come on to the bat on slow surfaces. So if you get in early you can feel the new ball coming nicely on to the bat, and at times you can play strokes."
Batting at No. 3 is often nearly the same as being an opener. Having opened and walked in as one-down for Indian Oil Corporation in the Mumbai corporate cricket league, Pujara is confident he has the right skills and mindset.
He didn't do too badly on the India A tour of the West Indies in June this year. In the first innings of the Barbados match, Pujara came to bat at 1 for 2 and scored a crucial half-century. In the second, he made an unbeaten 96 after walking in at 21 for 3 (nightwatchman Rahul Sharma had been sent in ahead of him before stumps on day three).
"The wicket was really bad, with a few balls bouncing from the good-length spot, making it impossible to bat. I got beaten a few times on the penultimate evening." On day four, India A were reduced to 115 for 8, but Pujara stood strong, and in the company of Shami Ahmed he took his team to a narrow win. In all three first-class matches on the tour, India lost their first two wickets in the first five overs more often than not. Rahane, who opens for Mumbai in first-class cricket, was tried at No. 3 but failed.
Pujara displayed a similar calm on his Test debut too, when he scored 72 against Australia in Bangalore, after being promoted up the order to No. 3. However, he played only two more Tests, after which an injury sustained during the 2011 IPL forced him to undergo surgery.
His hunger to play didn't subside as he watched from the sidelines. During this year's IPL, while he did not play many matches, Pujara enjoyed picking the brains of his Royal Challengers Bangalore team-mate AB de Villiers. "He told me he tries to play the ball as late as possible, which allows him to see it till it hits the bat," Pujara says. "That is helping me a lot: you allow the ball to come to you rather than you reach for it."
He also got some valuable advice from his father, who suggested his son was trying too hard to get his backlift straight, which was making his arms stiff and affecting his strokes. "He asked me to look at my videos when I played with soft hands where the backlift was more natural," Pujara says.
He also keeps in mind what Gary Kirsten, the former India coach, told him - while giving throwdowns during the Australia series - was the essential difference between international and domestic cricket. "He said, in international cricket you need to hang around because you get more good balls than loose ones, while in domestic cricket it is the other way around."
If he bats at No. 3, Pujara will be the important link between the opening pair of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir and middle-order mainstay Sachin Tendulkar. If he bats at No. 5, the fall of early wickets could put pressure on him to stabilise the innings while also anchoring the lower order. He is not intimidated by either prospect, saying he'll learn while batting with senior batsmen. "You learn about their games and how they understand the situation by talking in between overs.
"When Tendulkar came in to bat [on Pujara's debut in Bangalore], I was already in my 30s. I knew I would not get out and instead [would] take the team home. Legends like him read the bowlers very well and know the lines and lengths the bowler has in mind - something I might not be able to perceive. So if anything, it only helps to bat alongside senior batsmen."
Pujara missed the home series against West Indies and the tour of Australia and says he has been working hard on making a comeback. "It has been delayed because there were not many games, but I did whatever I could in the domestic format and with India A. But I do not want to rush. I am going to be calm and play my natural game."
Twenty-four now, he leads a disciplined lifestyle, sleeping early and waking up even earlier most days in his hometown of Rajkot to train for long hours. That has been his regimen for most of his life.
He was hurt at talk that his list of injuries seems never-ending, but says he remains driven. "This is the moment I have worked hard for. There is hunger, passion, and I am back to playing at the highest level. It is once again a debut game for me."
The biggest challenge, Pujara says, will be to try to fill the shoes of Dravid and Laxman. There is pressure, he says, but not overwhelming. "It is an opportunity for all the youngsters to prove ourselves. If you work in the right direction, the chances are more that you will succeed."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo