Cheteshwar Pujara eyes Ranji Trophy history on return to 'special ground'

Cheteshwar Pujara during a practice session Ekana Cricket Media/ Randhir Dev

Cheteshwar Pujara averages 68.01 in the Ranji Trophy, but even in a tournament he's dominated, he has taken his batting a notch higher against Karnataka. In six games against the eight-time champions, he averages 85.44 with two centuries and three fifties, including his first-class highest of 352 in Rajkot.

On Thursday, Pujara and Saurashtra will meet Karnataka for the first time since that match in 2013. This time theyy'll meet in the Ranji semi-finals, at Karnataka's home ground, another venue that holds fond memories for Pujara. "I made my Test debut at the Chinnaswamy Stadium," he said on Tuesday. "It is a special ground for me."

Pujara comes into this game on the back of two history-making events - he was Player of the Series in a first-ever Test series win for India in Australia, and part of the batting line-up that gunned down a record 372 against Uttar Pradesh in the Ranji quarter-finals.

That chase has filled Pujara with confidence with regards to Saurashtra's chances against Karnataka.

"At times, we have been very desperate about winning the Ranji Trophy but this time there's no pressure," Pujara said. "I'm going to talk about this to all the players. Even if we lose, the kind of cricket we've played this season has been exceptional. The quarter-final victory was very special to me. I'm sure it is special to everyone. To make a comeback like that...

"We have a very good chance of winning the semi-final and perhaps even the final. Because it shows that all the players are very determined. Throughout the season, all the players have contributed at some stage. Everyone is in form. If we play to our potential, we have a very good chance of winning this game. But there's no pressure on any of the players."

Pujara wasn't too keen to discuss his 2013 triple-hundred.

"That's in the past. We've played good cricket against them and won in Rajkot this season. I wasn't there but the guys have played one game against Karnataka and know what to expect. The good thing is it's a five-day game and we saw what we can do as a team. We didn't do well in the first innings against UP but we had enough time to make a comeback. Now we're a confident unit after chasing 372."

He also admitted that being the batsman the team looked up to brings extra pressure.

"Sometimes there is extra pressure. When I was playing the quarter-final I knew there was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders," Pujara said. "But I also need to understand that I need to be normal to perform well. I just have to focus on the process rather than worrying about the pressure or expectations which are there. I've already started my preparation today. I'll have one more net session tomorrow."

Given this desire to prepare, Pujara came straight to the Chinnaswamy from the airport, not bothering to stop at the team hotel in between. The rest of the Saurashtra team reached Bengaluru on Monday night, and Pujara joined them directly at the nets.

"I feel it is important to be part of the Ranji Trophy," he said. "For me, playing for Saurashtra is an honour. I've grown up playing Ranji Trophy cricket. It has helped me immensely when I've played international cricket. Being part of the Saurashtra unit is something I've always looked forward to. Especially when we are in the knockout stage, I feel if I'm around, if I can share my experience with young players, it can help the team. It's a bit of a change coming here from Australia and playing with the SG ball... it's slightly different. But fortunately, I got to play in the quarter-final.

"I always respect the Ranji Trophy. It is always special for me. I feel youngsters should look forward to playing this tournament because it prepares you for the longer format. I made my Ranji debut for Saurashtra in 2005. After that, the number of matches I've played...it's taught me many lessons on playing long innings."

Those words were echoed by Mayank Agarwal, who will be on the opposite side after having batted alongside Pujara in Australia. Agarwal has recovered from the thumb soreness that kept him out of Karnataka's quarter-final against Rajasthan.

"It means a lot," Agarwal said, about playing for Karnataka. "The state has given a lot of opportunities and facilities and as a player. Whatever you do, you have to come back and play for the state. And put in that effort, which you did before you went to play for the country. So nothing changes.

"The preparation remains the same. Whether you have played for India or not, you have to go out there and give your best and do the same things right, again and again. Obviously, you will have some confidence under your belt. Also, you have a bit more experience so that is something which you can carry forward."