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'You can play your natural game at No. 3'

Cheteshwar Pujara has shown he is willing and able to take Rahul Dravid's position in India's Test batting line-up

Nagraj Gollapudi

August 23, 2012

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Cheteshwar Pujara plays a cut-shot , West Indies A v India A, 1st unofficial Test, Barbados, 2nd day, June 3, 2012
Cheteshwar Pujara: not fussed about where he bats © West Indies Cricket Board
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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.

Aakash Chopra on why Pujara should bat one-down

  • Pujara has had only one good Test innings for India, in Bangalore against Australia. He struggled in South Africa, so there are scars that need to be erased. We all like to brush such things aside, but ask any international cricketer who has done well, failed and come back: the biggest challenge is to get accepted again. There are probably more questions now that he has to answer than when he made his debut. This is the mental hurdle he will have to clear.
  • Pujara has the right temperament to play for long hours with patience, but he is not your regular free-scoring player. So I feel he is best suited for No. 3, and not lower down the order, where, at times, you need to score runs at a fair clip. Playing fearless cricket does not come naturally to a youngster like Pujara. That may be easier for Suresh Raina, but not Pujara, who might find it daunting if he was asked to bat at No. 5 or 6.
  • If he does bat at No. 3, it's good to try him out against New Zealand at home, because their bowling attack might not pose enough tough questions for Pujara. He has to be ready to cope with that pressure when England visit at the end of the year. When you are batting at No. 3, you have think and construct your innings like an opener, and against the likes of James Anderson, Steve Finn and Stuart Broad, all tall, clever fast bowlers, Pujara will need to be playing at his best. England will be his real challenge.
  • Easy runs are never available in international cricket. Those boundaries that come easily in domestic cricket don't come every over or two in Tests. But Pujara is primed to win that battle because he knows how to bat time.
  • Being yourself at the international level is difficult, more so for a youngster. At times you tend to believe you need to do things differently to succeed. In Pujara's case, he needs to do exactly what he does in domestic cricket and be patient.

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

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Posted by   on (August 26, 2012, 3:52 GMT)

Rahane should plav in no. 3 and pujara should play in no. 5.dhoni and selectors are doing big mistake and for it history will never forgive them!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by Caje77 on (August 25, 2012, 5:00 GMT)

This is the time for pujara to play non stop white ball cricket.he should get chances in 10 test matches at home.however great his form selectors should not take him in shorter formats. Plus during the ipl as he is not a regular member of his franchise Rcb he should not be there for one season and play county cricket in england as he will get accustomed to play in seaming conditions.As seen he was exposed in Safrica in 2010.Both Badrinath and pujara should atleast play 1 season of county cricket

Posted by Al_Bundy1 on (August 24, 2012, 21:55 GMT)

Get rid of Tendu and bring in Badrinath. I am sure Badri can score more than 20 runs. At this rate, I think Badri will retire before Tendu! Gotta feel sorry for Badri.

Posted by Al_Bundy1 on (August 24, 2012, 16:25 GMT)

Pujara can play his natural game at No. 3. There are many youngsters who can play better than 10dulkar at No. 4. BCCI - please get rid of Tendu - he's a burden on our team. There's no shortage of talented batsmen in India. We lack quality bowlers. Sami Ahmed seems to be good find. He should be given a chance.

Posted by Gowza on (August 24, 2012, 0:49 GMT)

raina has been given a good number of matches, time for them to give rahane and tiwary a chance, mukund is still a good prospect to for when sehwag needs to go.

Posted by MinusZero on (August 24, 2012, 0:19 GMT)

The 72 he got in just his second test innings was very impressive and proved that he has the mentality for test cricket. I hope he can keep it up. Kohli and Pujara are the future of India's middle order. I just hope that T20 doesnt ruin their long game.

Posted by   on (August 23, 2012, 23:53 GMT)

This little chap Pujara - first sights at his style of batting remind me of 3 people: A very young Jaques Kallis, Nathan Astle and to some extent, Herschelle Gibbs.

If he can bat freely and keep turning fifties and hundreds regularly, I believe this lad will stay in the number 3 for a long time and with success.

I can't wait to see him bat in England and Australia. Not to see him fail, but to see him take the battle head on like a man, and win it.

Yet, I feel Badri should have come ahead of Mr. Raina.

How many more chances does Raina deserve and what should Badri do to demonstrate that he deserves a place ahead of Raina or for that matter, young Sharma, who would be immensely profited by some wizened old man telling him that talent is not just about how sweet you can hit the cricket ball, it's also about how long in terms of time, you can keep hitting it, and knowing when to. Something he may also ask young Kohli, if his ego permits that.

Posted by bigdhonifan on (August 23, 2012, 18:00 GMT)

So Pujara is 'Dravid', Kohli is 'Laxman' and Raina is 'Ganguly'. But what joy that Tendulkar is still 'Tendulkar'!

Posted by   on (August 23, 2012, 15:36 GMT)

Oh raina..he is only T2o player....check out his stats and at the time he played.. he always comes down the order at 35th over when u have Power play going on the pitches today so disastrous they are only batting friendly...there are no bowlers except few............. therefore, the cricket has gone boring because of such falt bullying trackes........... hence playerrs like sehwag kohli dhoni raina does well......... utter shame...prepare better pitches..then seee what will happen to these Indian team.....thank god they are not playing on some great tracks which we saw in West Indies in past.......... thanks that there are no tall bowlers like Mcgrath walsh ambrose donald pollock...........

Posted by   on (August 23, 2012, 14:16 GMT)

@Haleos , Short balll is problem for all the team not only India , it is just the mindset. for Indians it is very difficult adjust. if Raina plays a season at south africa, he wil get through that.

Posted by Gizza on (August 23, 2012, 12:12 GMT)

For the longer format Raina is hopeless. Tendulkar's time is near. Dhoni is hopeless. But everyone else in India's batting line up currently should have a good next 2-3 years. Maybe Sehwag also should stop playing away Tests. He doesn't have the hand reflexes anymore and he never really had footwork. Pujara looks a good prospect.

Posted by Haleos on (August 23, 2012, 12:09 GMT)

@ Sandman5five - well said. Why is there always talk of filling large boots etc. The greats did not start as greats. They developed, so will this youngster. Who knows Kohli, Pujara, Rahane might turn out better than VVS and Dravid with all due respect to them. When Gavaskar retired, everyone said, where to find a great, we got tendulkar. When Kapil retired we got Srinath. We need to have patience and give these youngsters chance. So far the chances they got were when the greats were injured or away for personal reasons.

Posted by BnH1985Fan on (August 23, 2012, 11:26 GMT)

@Edassery -- agree totally that other than Kohli no one in the young generation is capable of playing outside the subcontinent. Regarding replacing SRT -- poor chaps Raina and Rahane may retire before SRT wont step down, and, India will keep him in the team forever.

Posted by Sandman5five on (August 23, 2012, 10:36 GMT)

In stead of worrying about filling giant shoes (Dravid's or Laxman's), the youngsters should simply concentrate on doing a good job and carving out their own identity in the middle order.

Posted by Gowza on (August 23, 2012, 10:16 GMT)

india has plenty of batting talent coming through, give them a bit of time they are young and have big shoes to fill but they'll do it in due time. bowling talent on the other hand....

Posted by Edassery on (August 23, 2012, 9:25 GMT)

Playing like tigers in own backyard is what the likes of Raina et all are doing. Virat Kohli is the ONLY person in the young crowd who has done things better than anyone else. For me, the test batting line up looks like Sehwag, Gambhir, Pujara, Tendulkar, Kohli, Badrinath, Dhoni. And when Tendular retires, Rahane or Raina should get a chance. Raina and Yuvraj singh has power and attitude but no technical competency to be in the test side.

(Having said that Mr.Dhoni and Srikkanth are sure go screw up Badrinath again. Wonder why he doesn't get the same number of opportunities like Raina?)

Posted by abhilashpandey82 on (August 23, 2012, 9:13 GMT)

Pujara, a good cricketer, batsman, but have to wait and see if he has the temprament to play in condition unfavorable to Batsman, where for most of the seasons only Dravid, Laxman and Sachin could stand tall. There is still a long way for Pujara before he cements his place. Good that he is getting a chance to play in the subcontinent..in his so called Second Debut

Posted by Haleos on (August 23, 2012, 8:54 GMT)

All the useless talk of Dravid and VVS not replaceable is gone for now. All the greats retire some time. Indian greats need more time to retire. Way to go Pujara, Kohli. Good luck to Raina too. He is better prospect compared to Badri. Dont look the first class averages. Look at international experience. Raina has tons of it. Short ball problem is not raina's alone. Almost entire team suffers from it.

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