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'Improvement' the goal as Pujara returns to county cricket

Cheteshwar Pujara has enjoyed previous county spells with Yorkshire and Derbyshire Getty Images

There are hardly any days off for Cheteshwar Pujara the cricketer. As a child he would have to train even on Diwali day if he had to burst crackers in the evening. His father wanted to develop a muscle memory for long innings, he wanted to train his mind and body to bat and bat and bat. That could happen only if he batted every day.

With a career 48 Tests old, Pujara can now take it a little easier. He takes a week or two off after a season as long as he has had - 13 home Tests - but then he is back to playing cricket every day again, apart from Sunday. At a time when every fit and healthy player contracted with India is busy playing IPL, Pujara wakes up early and drives about 20 kilometres from his home to an anonymous cricket academy on the outskirts of Rajkot. He warms up, runs a lap, pads up and faces the bowlers there.

This academy is run by his father. There is an IPL and Test venue in the city, but there is no pitch for the local Test star to practise on. Imagine the plight of budding cricketers. Arvind Pujara, who meticulously shaped Cheteshwar the batsman, coaches kids at this academy, kids who have the basic talent and, more importantly, dedication to cricket. From school children to age-group cricketers to Ranji cricketers, they all come here every day to train. When Pujara is in town, he follows the routine too.

They all report at the Pujara residence early in the morning, and then are taken to the academy in a coach. They are taken back before it gets really hot. A new batch comes around for a post-lunch session. Not one penny is charged. Not for balls, not for venue, not for coaching, not for travel. The academy is a big playing field. In the dry heat of Rajkot, they are having to buy water to get an outfield going. At two edges of the ground, there are practice pitches, both turf and cement.

Having not been offered an IPL contract, until a few days ago Pujara could be seen slogging balls out of the ground. He believes he can be a successful Twenty20 cricketer. Not in the mould of David Warner or Robin Uthappa, but Hashim Amla and Kane Williamson. This ambition is perhaps why Pujara let county opportunities pass when most teams were trying to finalise their one overseas professional months ago.

This summer was going to be a frustrating one. Pujara was fit and healthy and dying for some cricket, but he hadn't any. In the heat of Rajkot, the practice hours were to get shorter. Yet the only way for him to stay in good shape for when his Test chance arrives in July was to train every day. You can't turn up rusty, his father says.

"It is very difficult playing just one format, because you don't get that improvement," Pujara says. "If you want to improve - I am not saying local boys are not good - [but] obviously you can't match that standard. When you are practising with the India team, even if you are not playing so many matches, you are still practising with them, doing training, fielding with them, you are in a different atmosphere."

A few days ago, however, even as India refused to select their Champions Trophy side, Australia picked James Pattinson, himself signed by Nottinghamshire as a replacement for Peter Siddle, opening up a spot. As soon as the county got into talks with Pujara, he was back to keeping the ball along the ground. Even if the bowling was not challenging, he began to train his body and mind for long-form cricket. His batting stints became proper and intense. The T20 disappointment was out of the way for now, not least because he enjoys playing county cricket.

"To gain that experience in playing in such conditions where wickets are bowler friendly, there is more bounce, there is lateral movement," Pujara says is his reason for placing importance on county cricket. "I want to play in such conditions quite often so that I improve as a player. I like the challenge of the wickets. Most of the times, teams go for outright wins."

There is another big difference. Unlike Indian domestic cricket, people outside the teams care for their county. "When it comes to county cricket, they very much follow," Pujara says. "There is a different fan following for county cricket. They support their home team… Culture is such that you enjoy playing cricket. Weather is different. Three to four thousand people come in."

Depending on how soon Pattinson returns, Pujara will play either four or six matches for Nottinghamshire. His father and wife will travel with him. They did so when he played for Yorkshire two years ago. He says he loved getting away from the heat, and doing small things like maintaining his rented apartment, doing laundry, going on grocery runs, and on long walks with his wife.

That stint also let him get away from the disappointment of being dropped from the Test XI. He came back, sat out two more Tests, and then scored a series-winning century when given a chance in the final Test in Sri Lanka. Considering he is a better state of mind now, and has begun to keep the ball down at the nets, Nottinghamshire might have just signed themselves a serious player.