July 7, 2014

'We know we are capable of performing anywhere'

Cheteshwar Pujara talks about his preparation for the England tour, lessons learnt from T20, and Duncan Fletcher's contribution

"We expect the pitches in England to behave better compared to what we faced in South Africa and New Zealand" © Getty Images

Do you believe you are India's best current Test batsman?
I don't want to compare or rate myself because cricket has always been a team game and I do not want to say I am the best. Obviously there are many responsibilities, which I totally understand. There are also so many expectations because of the way I have performed in the last one and a half years. I know that I am capable of scoring big runs. I just want to continue the good form rather than worry about whether I am the best or not, which will help both my career as well as India's progress in the forthcoming series.

India are playing a five-Test series for the first time after 12 years. How daunting is that a task for this Indian team?
It will be a challenging tour. No doubt about that, because we did not play well on the previous tour in 2011. That will be at the back of our minds. But there are more positives now. Our batsmen have played the likes of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in South Africa, where we did reasonably well. A couple of sessions did not go our way, otherwise we could have won that series. But overall we had a good tour of South Africa. Then, earlier this year in New Zealand, I did not make runs, but I did get starts. I did feel I was in good touch and I was happy despite not getting big runs. Those two tours will help me and other Indian batsmen perform better in England.

In England we expect the pitches to behave better compared to what we faced in South Africa and New Zealand. Also, most of the Indian players have already been to England in the past so they are aware of the conditions, in contrast to South Africa and New Zealand, where we did not have previous playing experience.

The wounds of the 4-0 whitewash of the 2011 tour have not yet been erased. What will be the key for India to do well this time around?
It is self-belief. Having played overseas we now know we are capable of performing anywhere. It is a confident unit now. The 2011 Indian batch was a mix of seniors and juniors. Now it is mostly young players, so our communication is really good. I'm not saying the communication was not there in 2011, but when you have seniors [in the squad] you tend to learn from them and speak to them accordingly. Now we try and share our experiences. We share a lot of information. For example I often go to Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan and share my inputs and at the same time ask them for their insights. So the communication is easier and that is the key for this Indian team's success. It can save you a wicket or help you take a wicket.

Do you think India will be more confident this time around considering England are themselves a different team, with a new coach, a new batting order, and a bowling attack without Graeme Swann?
It will make a huge difference for them. We obviously will not worry about what their side will be. But when you have players just coming into the team and experienced players like Swann not being there, the combination changes that might affect them. Playing at home is still an advantage for England, but you can't deny the fact that changing the combination might make things difficult for them.

What about James Anderson - do you consider him one of the most dangerous bowlers?
He is dangerous. It is all about experience and he has that. He knows where to bowl, what length to pitch on, and which end to pick. He is a clever bowler. He might be the bowler for us to watch out for.

"If I'm batting with the tail and the situation demands that we accelerate, I will be able to switch gears much better now"

You are known to prepare diligently ahead of every overseas tour. How are you trying to fight the seaming conditions in England?
The good thing is I have already played in the UK, having toured there with the India A team in 2010. So I have a little bit of an idea of how the pitches might behave. But it all depends on the weather conditions. There are so many changes one can experience in England. If it is sunny, the ball might not swing much but it can still seam. My father is already thinking about preparing pitches that might offer more seam movement. I am also trying to find balls that will swing around more than the normal ones do. So we will try and mix it up, which will simulate the movement as far as possible. I have heard that in the UK there is not as much seam movement compared to South Africa and New Zealand. So swing is something I will be working on to get myself prepared. I have also spoken to some of the Australian players in the Kings XI Punjab squad about playing in foreign conditions and how pitches behave and what they feel is the key to succeed.

England showed they were dangerous even in India. You were the second-highest run-maker in that series. But England came back from their pounding in the first Test in Ahmedabad to win the series 2-1. How much did it hurt to lose at home?
It was really disappointing. We wanted to beat England badly, keeping the 2011 defeat in mind. But ultimately you have to appreciate the way they played. Things turned around for England from the second Test in Mumbai. I thought we were in a very good position having scored 375-odd runs. But the partnership between Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen proved to be the turning point of the series. Everybody should appreciate the way those two batted because it was not an easy pitch. After they won that Test England felt they had the confidence and they carried forward the momentum to win the series. Overall India competed really well but you have to give credit to England.

Although he is retired now Kevin Pietersen has left some stirring memories. What do you admire about him?
He is a fearless cricketer. The kind of shots he plays, like the switch hit and the reverse sweep, require a lot of practice. I have been working on those kind of strokes in the nets and I can tell you it is not easy to play. Pietersen's preparation and work ethic are tremendous. He is spontaneous, because I have noticed him change his stroke even as the ball is halfway down the pitch. He could be thinking of playing the sweep shot but if he spots the ball landing outside the off stump he can switch-hit the ball over cover, which is impossible to many other batsmen.

But there is one other guy who has done similar stuff: Glenn Maxwell, who was your Kings XI Punjab team-mate…
Maxwell is similarly spontaneous and, like Pietersen, he too prepares really well. He plays the reverse sweep, switch hit, and scoop so many times in the nets. He has mastered it to the extent that he can take his decision just as the bowler is releasing the ball. He can change his plan impromptu. At times he has pre-planned strokes for certain type of deliveries and against particular bowlers. But Pietersen has done it in Tests and ODIs, not just the IPL. Perhaps Maxwell could do the same in the future. He is capable of it.

Did the explosive trio of Maxwell, David Miller and Virender Sehwag actually distract you, a more classical and technically correct batsman?
I have a role to play in the IPL team where I do not need to go at a strike rate of 150 and above. That is the job for these three guys and they are capable of doing that in any situation. I have to play to my strengths and that allows me to play normal cricketing strokes and score 40-odd runs in 30-odd balls. I do not think they distract me at all. My role is very well-defined. I play the game the way I know best.

To the fans outside the subcontinent you are the odd one out among India's glitzy batting order. You do not have the same visible swagger of a Kohli, Dhawan, Rohit or Raina. Are you the odd one out?
People have formed an impression of me, that I am capable of playing the Test format. Steadily I have started performing in ODIs also and now people think I can play in that format also. With time, and with my hard work and work ethic, I think I will be able to catch up with T20s too. But I will need some time. T20 is somethingI am still learning. In India we do not play too many T20s in domestic cricket. Before the IPL I had just played four T20 matches. The more I play in the IPL, the better I will become. At the moment I am really happy the way things are going with my Test career. I spoke to the Indian team management and they are looking for me to be part of the ODI set-up.

As for my personality, I am not a flamboyant person. But personality is a totally different thing altogether. I like things to be simple. My job is to play cricket and I enjoy playing the game. Otherwise I lead a simple life.

Is there something a batsman like you can take from the T20 format into your Test batting?
One thing that will help me in the Tests is, if I'm batting with the tail and the situation demands that we accelerate, I will be able to switch gears much better now. In Test cricket most of the fielders are inside the ring so I can play shots with freedom. But apart from that, it is a different ball, different conditions, and the strategies are different between T20 and Tests.

Due to the success of the IPL the outside world is always doubting whether young Indians are bothered at all about Test cricket. You entered the Indian team based on your first-class performances. Can you talk about where you place Test cricket?
I love Test cricket. It is the ultimate format in the game. I have had the opportunity to speak to Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Ricky Ponting, AB de Villiers and all of them agree Test cricket is the most challenging and [the format] which every player loves to play. I am no exception. One good thing is I am very good at it. Test matches will always be a priority for me as your cricketing skills are always tested when you play in different conditions and different situations. So it is not an easy job - to be part of the Test team and be successful.

This is the first year India are playing without Tendulkar. What is it like to be part of the next generation: daunting or inspiring?
One of the things Sachin paaji told me was: We are here to serve the nation and serve the game of cricket. People have expectations from us and we are always working hard to become successful. But India has a lot of young players in this team and it might take us some time to be successful, especially overseas. But most of the players in this current Indian team have played with legends like Tendulkar and Dravid, who shared their experiences and provided tips on how to succeed across all formats at the international level. So those interactions are bound to be useful for us. But I admit it is a challenging task. When the team does not have any experienced players then I have to be more responsible.

When I made my debut I was just a youngster, and people looked at me as someone who was coming up. But now when I go in to bat the same people have a lot of expectations. So there are more responsibilities for me now. But that only makes you a better player. It makes you realise your wicket is really important. It makes you realise you have a responsibility not just for yourself but for the team and the entire country.

It must be good to have a veteran like Duncan Fletcher as the Indian coach. How has he helped the young India batsmen?
One thing Duncan has always maintained is he never touches or changes a player's basics. He understands technique and temperament. He just fine-tunes few aspects if need be. He never forces a player to do anything or change something dramatically. He keeps the players comfortable and talks to them and leaves it to him to decide what to do. That way he manages to keep the player in his comfort zone.

"Most of the players in this current team have played with legends like Tendulkar and Dravid, who shared their experiences and provided tips on how to succeed" © AFP

He is very innovative. He realises that the game is changing and the kind of strategies he has are very helpful. For example in one-day cricket there are five fielders inside the circle now, so he has strategies for batsmen for the areas he can target as well as the areas the bowler will focus on to make use of that field.

Duncan's experience with the England team in the past has helped him handle the Indian team better. Based on his rich coaching experience overseas he can share various things that can only be helpful for us. England were on top when he was with them and he has shared stuff with us that made them better.

Life as an Indian cricketer is completely different from what other international players go through. Everyone says they block it out, but is it really possible to ignore the clamour?
It has become difficult. Earlier when I played for Saurashtra I could do what I want and roam the streets. As an Indian cricketer I cannot do it anymore. So privacy is difficult. But on the positive front the fans admire and praise you and follow you closely. I lead a simple life and my focus has always been on the game. Thanks to my parents, especially my father, who was a first-class cricketer - that helped me a lot with my game. He has helped me become the person I am. Even though it is difficult to keep my professional life and personal life separate I have managed to do that and I hope to be the same person that I am now.

Are you taking your dad to Lord's? What are your own feelings of playing there?
I have told him [to come] but he likes to watch the game on television where he can notice every small thing. He told me he will be more comfortable continuing to do that rather being at the ground and getting distracted.

It will be really exciting to play at Lord's where I have dreamed of playing a Test match from my childhood. But one thing is certain: my focus will be on the game once I'm on the field. I won't be nervous. I won't be very excited, because ultimately I am playing cricket. So I have to handle myself and be balanced about what I have to do for team India. As an individual, that is my responsibility.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. This is an adapted version of an interview originally published in the July issue of the Cricketer magazine