Pujara adds slip catching and quick singles to his armoury

When the Nagpur Test began, an unfamiliar sight greeted followers of Indian cricket. As Ishant Sharma began running up to bowl the first ball, Cheteshwar Pujara stood at first slip. Pujara's last stint in the slips came in 2012-13; since then he's usually fielded in the outfield to the fast bowlers and at short leg or silly point to the spinners.

Pujara marked his return to the slips with an excellent catch to send back Sadeera Samarawickrama, diving forward and to his left to complete a low grab. On Sunday he hinted that he is likely to continue at first slip when India go to South Africa in January to begin a long sequence of away tours.

"Most probably," he said, at the end of the third day's play. "Going forward I think, especially in overseas conditions, all the batsmen should be ready to field in the slips, where we'll have at least three slips and a gully throughout the day. So we are trying to have all the batsmen who can field at the slips whenever needed.

"We'll take a call about my slip fielding once we reach there, but most likely I might be there at first slip. I've been doing close-in fielding for the Indian team for quite some time. For spinners I've been fielding at gully. Slip fielding is something I've done in the past even for Saurashtra. I enjoy fielding at slips, so going forward, if I'm fielding at first slip I'll definitely enjoy and try and take many catches."

Another difference in Pujara's game, right through this series, has been his eagerness to push for quick singles. Troubled by knee injuries early in his career, Pujara has never been the quickest runner, but during the course of his 143 in Nagpur - and also his half-century in the first Test in Kolkata - he has been noticeably keen on pinching quick singles for himself and his partners, and there were plenty of twos and threes as well, particularly during his partnership of 183 with Virat Kohli, one of the fleetest athletes in the team.

"See, since last one-and-a-half, two years, I've been working on my fitness," Pujara said. "Luckily there haven't been any injuries, and injuries are something I've gone through and that is in the past. Now I'm fully fit and that is the reason I'm able to take all the quick singles and even doubles.

"Even my recoveries are much better now, because of my fitness. When it comes to batting I don't think there's anything I've changed, but fitness has helped me a lot, and when it comes to recovery and playing Test cricket, especially, if you want to be there on the field for all five days, you need to have a lot of stamina and your fitness has to be on the top."

Pujara spent 362 balls at the crease in Nagpur; on a pitch that he felt was "on the slower side", he scored his runs at a strike-rate of just under 40. He felt the pitch, on day three, had begun to show signs of wear, and that Sri Lanka would be in for a difficult time in their second innings.

"Kolkata was a different wicket altogether, where there was a lot of assistance for the fast bowlers, especially in the first innings. Coming back to this wicket, I think it was difficult to score runs, because this wicket was on the slower side, so it wasn't very easy to get boundaries. So we had to rotate the strike, and in between, whenever we got some opportunities, we tried to play some shots.

"But overall I think it was a tough pitch where, as a batsman, you might not get out, but at the same time it was difficult to score runs. I think, going forward in this game, the ball has started turning, so we're hoping that on day four our spinners will come into play, and at the same time there's variable bounce for the fast bowlers, so Ishant and Umesh [Yadav] also will come into play."

Despite the slowness of the pitch, Virat Kohli still managed to score 213 at a strike rate of close to 80. Pujara put this down to his form and confidence.

"He's the kind of player who performs well in all the formats of the game, and the way he started off - if there was any other batsman, I don't think someone else could have started the same way. I think it's his confidence and the way he's batting recently in the last 2-3 years. The way he was timing the ball - if there was any other batsman it was a bit difficult to score with such a strike rate."

Pujara will head to South Africa with runs behind him, but perhaps not a whole lot of preparation in South African conditions. With India playing six limited-overs games against Sri Lanka after this, they will arrive in South Africa with only enough time for one two-day warm-up game before the first Test. Pujara, who is not part of India's limited-overs squads, hoped the Test specialists would be able to land in South Africa early.

"See, as far as practice games are concerned, I'm not someone who should be commenting," he said. "It also depends on the schedule, and the way BCCI plans its tours. But going there little bit early - maybe say about a week or 10 days early - and then practising on those pitches is important.

"But at the same time it also depends on the way the Indian team is playing in other formats. So if there are some matches scheduled before we either go to South Africa or England, then you can't help it. As an individual you need to be prepared, and even if we are in India, we need to try and replicate the wickets which might be there in South Africa or England, and try and practise here."

If Saurashtra qualify for the Ranji Trophy quarter-finals, Pujara could get some match practice before heading to South Africa, but having been there twice before with the Test team, he felt he had gleaned enough knowledge of the conditions.

"I've been there in 2010 and again in 2013, so that experience will definitely help me," he said. "Apart from that, as soon as this Test series gets over - it also depends on whether Saurashtra qualifies for the Ranji quarterfinals - but at the same time I think we'll have enough time - especially the players who are part of the Test team - because the first Test starts on [January 5].

"Before that there is plenty of time to prepare. Personally, county experience and playing in South Africa in the past will definitely help me, because I have improved my technique, especially playing in overseas conditions. Overall I'm very confident with the kind of form I'm going through."

Ajinkya Rahane, meanwhile, has been going through a lean patch of late, particularly in home conditions, and on Sunday was out for 2, slicing Dilruwan Perera to point. Pujara said there was no reason to worry about Rahane's form.

"I think Ajinkya Rahane is someone who is a class player," he said. "This is the time where he's not scoring some runs, but he's someone who will be back in form very soon. His work ethics are remarkable, and I'm very sure that, going forward, he's just one innings away, where the moment he gets a big score, he will be back in form and he'll be quite a useful player for the Indian team."