Cheteshwar Pujara was player No. 72 in the last IPL auction. All the other batsmen in his set, the 21st, had gone unsold. Barring 2018, when he played for Hampshire, Pujara had gone unsold in every auction since 2015. This time heads turned when the Chennai Super Kings raised their paddle as soon as his name came up. The auction room erupted in applause when CSK bought him for US$50,000.
Pujara might seem like an aberration in the IPL , but he is no stranger to the scene - he has played five seasons of the tournament, between 2010 and 2014 for three franchises. He also has a T20 century to his name - for Saurashtra in the 2019 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.
Here, Pujara talks about his return to the IPL and why he is confident of adapting in a format which he once said was a "piece of cake" compared to the pressure of batting in Test cricket.
What were your emotions when you heard you were picked in the auction?
I was really pleased to be back in the IPL again. This is something which you don't want to miss out, as an Indian player. Usually I play county cricket, but last year because of Covid-19 I missed out on that. When you love playing this game you want to play it. And when it's IPL you want to be part of it. It is one of the best leagues in the world. Yes, playing for the Indian team is a different thing entirely, but when it comes to being part of the IPL, any cricketer would want to be part of it. I am no exception.
You've been putting your name in the hat for the IPL auction every year since 2015 bar one, though you went unsold each time. What were your thoughts when you did so this time?
It's like every other year where I feel that I just want to put my name. And when I get an opportunity, I will be up for it. Deep down I know that I can do it.
It's still a game of cricket where you have a lot of strengths. When you are playing Test cricket, you know a lot about the game: the technical aspect, the thought process, the amount of time you have to put in to be successful in that ultimate form of the game. When your thought process or your environment is about cricket, then it is just about adapting to the format.
I wasn't confident I will be picked, but I was very confident that given an opportunity I will be successful in this format. I will learn many things and I am very confident that I will become a better player in this format.
You were paid US$700,000 by the Royal Challengers Bangalore during your 2011-13 stint with them. Then you were with the Kings XI Punjab in 2014. In 2010 you were with the Kolkata Knight Riders. Does the public perception that you are not a T20 player hurt?
See, it's not their fault. It is not about getting hurt. I feel that it is about being ready for the opportunity whenever it comes. They don't know whether I'm good or not good, because in last few years I haven't been seen playing T20 cricket. For example, if someone hasn't played any Test cricket in last four or five years, you can't say he is good or bad because he hasn't played. So just by seeing the way I play in Test cricket you can't pass judgement about whether I'll be good or not be good at the shorter format.
"When your thought process or your environment is about cricket, then it is just about adapting to the format"
The Super Kings said the reason they picked you was that they wanted to pay respect to you for being a devotee of Test cricket. You must be happy about that?
Absolutely. I'm really pleased that what I've done for the Indian team is noticed and I got results for that. I was told when I was picked, all the franchises clapped [in the auction room]. I feel that when you are doing something for the Indian team, people love it, they know the value I bring in. Not just the franchises, almost all my [India] team-mates were really happy for me. Last few years I'm the only one who has been missing out [on playing in the IPL] from the Indian team.
The only guy missing out at this stage is Hanuma Vihari. I feel for him. He was previously part of the IPL. I feel that he should also be part of the IPL.
You have played plenty of club cricket in Chennai, so you are familiar with the city and its cricketing culture. Do you speak Tamil?
Ha! I can't speak it, but I will start learning few words for sure! As for the cricketing culture, people love cricket - it hardly matters whether you are playing Test cricket or you are part of a T20 set-up.
Will you treat this IPL season like a debut?
I have played this game for such a long time and now I don't need to, and I won't, take any pressure for sure. I'll enjoy my game. And I've already done some preparations when I was at home [in Rajkot, after the England Test series]. I started playing different shots, which I enjoyed.
I don't want to take on pressure, thinking that I just have to perform if I get an opportunity. Nothing like that. I want to prepare well, I want to follow the right processes, which I do even in the longer format, and then be ready. I don't know when my opportunity will come, but I just want to be ready.
In the past you said you were worried that if you changed your batting for T20 cricket, it would have an impact on your Test cricket. Have you put that behind you now?
Absolutely. It all comes with experience. When I was playing the T20 format in the past, I had a little bit of a worry that what if I my Test cricket gets spoiled? Then there will be some technical error once the IPL gets over. But now I am over that. What I realised over a period of time is my natural game, my strengths, will never go away.
This advice I got from Rahul bhai [Dravid] long ago, but I would still like to mention it. He told me that your natural game will not change although you try playing different shots. I started playing cricket at an early age. I made my first-class debut in 2005-06. So it is almost 15 years now where I've played this game. So if I am playing the T20 format now, when I prepare for a Test series I won't forget Test cricket. Adapting to T20 format and moving into Test cricket again won't be an issue, for sure.
Two years ago you said in an interview that if you can tackle the red ball, playing T20 cricket is a piece of cake.
I definitely think so, especially the way the white ball travels. It is just about making the mental change. I feel that mentally if you are ready to make some adjustments, you don't need to take a lot of pressure. In Test cricket there is a lot of pressure, there is a price on your wicket. But in the shorter format you just need to express yourself and play all the shots you can.
Recently Robin Uthappa, your team-mate at the Super Kings, said one of the things that has changed over the years in T20 is, batting has become role-specific. Mentally have you opened yourself up to such a prospect?
I am very flexible now. And one has to be in this format. There was a time where players used to choose [their role], but now players have changed, their roles have changed, and the most successful are the ones who are very flexible in the way they do things.
"You need to get better at generating power, but ultimately cricketing sense is your main strength"
Would you prefer opening?
See, if given a choice I am someone who can contribute in the top order, whether it is opening or playing at No. 3 or 4. But that's something that I can't say at the moment. I will have a chat with the coaching staff and Mahi bhai [Dhoni] about what is expected of me. At this stage it is too early to say anything, but if I get to bat in in the top order whenever possible, I'll be more than happy. But as I said, one has to be flexible. I'm not at a stage where I should be demanding.
In the past you have opened with the likes of Chris Gayle at RCB and Virender Sehwag at Kings XI. Is there something from those experiences that might come in handy this season?
Things have changed from the past, so the expectation or my role will be defined once I interact with everyone. Experience from the past always helps, but I can't say how much because I'm again new to the set-up and starting this format after some time.
Basically the game remains the same: even in this format you still need to assess the situation. You can't just have one mindset whenever you walk into bat. You still need to assess the situation - what is the target, what is a bowler trying to do?
For batsmen in T20, managing their strike rates is a big part of their game. You are not a power-hitter who can catch up later after a steady start. What do you think stands in your favour as a batsman?
The stability, the cricketing sense - to read the bowler, to understand the bowler, to understand the situation. It is something I have learned by playing the Test format, and even shorter formats.
I have played limited-overs cricket in domestic cricket [in India] as well in county cricket. Just by playing those matches you realise what you can do in a particular situation. So that is something which can be helpful, because you need to understand what a bowler is trying to do, how the pitch is behaving, and what the shots are that you can play on a particular pitch.
And when it comes to strike rate, yes, I agree that I'm not a power-hitter. But at the same time, you learn from players like Virat [Kohli]. Rohit [Sharma], he is not purely a power-hitter, but he is one of the best timers of the ball I have seen in the shorter formats.
You learn from players like Kane Williamson. Even Steven Smith. All of them score runs by just playing cricketing shots, and at the same time they will be innovative. I also have that mindset, that if I want to be successful, I also need to be innovative, but at the same time you can still score runs by playing cricket shots. You need to get better at generating power, I won't deny that, but ultimately cricketing sense is what I feel will be your main strength.
In the past, players like Michael Hussey and Dravid had similar approaches. But what goes through your mind when you see Rishabh Pant reverse-scooping Jimmy Anderson in Test cricket?
(Smiles). Well, [he has] a unique way of looking at things. He is successful because he is fearless. And he has to bat the way he knows - by assessing the situation, and if he thinks he can do that, then then why not. He can only be successful backing his own strengths. He is very instinctive. And he has to stick to that. Everyone including us in the dressing room was stunned, but that is something unique about him. If he can pull that off again and again, there is nothing wrong.
Have you tried such a shot?
Never! I can't do that. I can't do that (smiles). Going over third man [by reverse-scooping] as a right-hander is tough. Going over fine leg, that I have tried.
What is the most fearless stroke you have played?
The scoop over fine leg against a fast bowler. Even in the IPL I have done that. At least three or four times. I remember getting a four that way when we played in Dubai [in 2014].
"Just by seeing the way I play in Test cricket, you can't pass judgement about whether I'll be good or not be good at the shorter format"
Do you change your bats for T20?
Yeah, you have to. What you use in Test cricket and what you use in IPL has to be a little different. Not a drastic change. Some of the bats will be slightly heavier than what I use in the Test format. My Test bat is about 1160 grams. Here [T20] it is about 20-30 grams heavier.
If you use a heavier bat you want the balance of the bat to be spread across. Usually in the Test bats the balance [of weight] is slightly lower because most of the balls hit in the middle of the bat or a little lower. But it can also differ even in Tests: in India it hits the sweet spot or a little lower, but overseas it will be the sweet spot or above.
In your Test game you don't really hit sixes or step out to hit the ball over the head of the bowler. But in T20 you have to do that. How difficult is it making that switch?
It's basically a change of mindset. You need to be fearless and you need to work on a few areas of your game to be successful in T20.
When you talk to my team-mates at Saurashtra, they will tell you it is something that is difficult for me. I just don't need to do that in Test cricket, that is not part of my game plan. In Test cricket I want to ensure we put up a decent total. You don't want to put your wicket at risk just for two extra runs, and if I get out, the team will be in trouble. So that is a reason I don't do it in Test cricket.
Are you looking forward to speaking to Hussey and the Super Kings' head coach Stephen Fleming, both of whom were technically correct batsmen?
Yes. I remember Fleming's century [134 not out] against South Africa in the 2003 World Cup. It is one of the best ODI innings I have seen. It looked like he didn't take too many risks, but he was still going at a rate where it looked like he was in a different zone.
The way Hussey and I look to play is quite similar. I will get a lot of inputs from him because the way he used to play, most of them were cricketing shots.
What about fielding - is that an aspect you have worked on, since it is integral in the white-ball format?
Not just this format, even in Test cricket the demands have changed. I have figured out that it is not just the fielding, even my fitness has improved a lot. There is a correlation: when you improve your fitness, it helps you get better at your fielding. In those two areas there is no end to getting better. In batting you can reach a milestone and be satisfied, but in fitness there is no set milestone. You can assess yourself by doing the 2km time trial or the yo-yo test, but you can always still progress in your fitness. And the same applies to fielding.
What are you hoping to get out of this opportunity to play in the IPL?
First goal is, CSK should qualify for the playoffs whether I play or don't play. As an individual I want to get better at this format, learn as many things as possible and be confident. I am trying out a few things in my batting, which I want to discuss with the coaches and Mahi bhai and keep working on that so I can get results, which will be the most pleasing thing. I am not a person whose expectations are too high. I am a person who wants to put in whatever efforts I can.
Not really. I am very confident now and that is because of Test cricket. That confidence comes from my hard work and I just want to do the hard yards right from my first net session. You have a lot of pressure in the Test format, and the overseas tours are the most challenging. So when you have been part of that, I don't think there is any nervousness [about playing in the IPL]. There will be a different kind of pressure: to play this format, to chase successfully. There is a different challenge to this format.
So it is not about proving a point to anybody, including yourself?
No, it's not. You should not be worried about the outcome. You should be doing the right thing to be successful - whether you talk about hard work, discipline, dedication. When you are ready to do that, stick with that, the outcome usually [takes care of itself]. I am focused on what I have to do as a player.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo