India's best batsman in the recent home Tests against England, with a standout century on a turner in Mumbai. Selected in the ODI squad to face England, after having made his Test debut in 2010. Racking up aggressive centuries in the Ranji Trophy. Suddenly, Cheteshwar Pujara is everywhere, but it is only now that he is getting all-round recognition for having spent years building his game. ESPNcricinfo spoke to Pujara in his hometown of Rajkot.
Against England, you were quick to use your feet against the spinners. Is that something you carry over from first-class cricket? How much have you worked on it?
I think it is because of all the first-class cricket I have played. I have tried doing it continuously at that level - coming down the wicket. It makes it difficult for the spinners. They try to flight the ball and hit the good-length area. When you step out, it is hard for them to adjust their line and length.
There is a difference between charging or jumping out and stepping out. You seem to be in control when you come down the pitch. How do you keep yourself focused at that time?
It is about judging the right length. When you see the release of the ball, you get to know whether it is on a good length. If it is, you can step out and reach there. I try and look at the release of the ball when I am batting against spin.
As far as technique against spin is concerned, very few batsmen are able to keep their wrists flexible when they push forward. When you come forward, it does not seem that your wrists are locked. You are able to guide the ball to say, third man. Have you always batted like that?
Yes, this has been my technique since my Under-19 days. It is easier to get singles when you have free wrists, you can play the ball either side of the wicket. I have been working on this in the nets since I was young - just try to see the gap and place the ball there. During your innings, you always look to get singles. When I had to be successful at the first-class level initially, I knew that you should be able to rotate the strike. As a youngster four-five years ago, that was my plan - to be able to rotate the strike. If you want to do that, you have to be very wristy. (This way) when you don't want to play shots and be in the defensive mode, you still end up getting the singles.
Do flexible wrists also help you play with soft hands? You don't jab at the ball a lot when you are looking to defend.
My defence is very strong. I would say that is my strength. I have worked on it, I have never quite focused on keeping the hands soft, but my father is very particular about me playing all balls correctly in the nets. So whenever I push at the ball or make some other mistake, he tells me, 'this is not the way to go about it. You might give a catch to short leg,' and so on. He believes it is about practising perfectly.
You have spoken about the hands and the wrists. What about the body position? Many times, when you are beaten in the flight, you are still able to avoid silly point or short leg.
All that is natural. I have never paid any attention to it. It is again about practising perfectly, then all things come naturally. What I try and do is look at the ball till it hits the bat, so whenever there is a bit of turn or at times the ball goes straight, you can adjust.
Does balance at the crease also come naturally to you?
It is because of the experience. The more matches you play, the more you learn about the game.
Let's talk about the cut. You don't just play the cut, you give it a good old whack, and are in the air at times as you play it. Have you always played it so strongly?
I think it is natural. It is also about playing the shot over a period of time. I believe I have more time when I play off the back foot. That is the reason I can play it strongly. When you have time, you can free your arms. You know you are in the correct position. I am there at the right time. If you are late, then you can't play it.
"A single is important. A boundary is also important. It is about playing on the merit of the ball. If it is a half-volley, you have to hit it for four, no matter what the situation is. Even if the score is 50 for 6, the half-volley is a half-volley."
A lot of experts have spoken about your playing the hook shot. You have this reputation of being a very safe batsman but still you play the hook quite regularly.
It is instinctive. When I see a short ball, I know I can hit it. And when you have an opportunity to score a four, why not take it? I got out playing the hook against New Zealand, and I realised, it is not my strength. I can play the pull properly. So I started leaving balls which were above shoulder height and I was successful doing that in the Ahmedabad and Mumbai Tests against England.
So from now on you will try to duck under the short ball?
Yeah, when you are not comfortable playing that shot… I am ready to leave the ball and if it is in my range, I'll go for it.
How has your batting developed against fast bowling? That is not something you must have faced a lot at first-class level.
Playing (James) Anderson and (Steven) Finn was a different experience. Finn played only the Kolkata Test, but he was quick, and accurate. Anderson is one of the best when it comes to reverse swing. Facing them has helped me a lot and given me confidence. Whenever I bat at first-class level, there is difference in the speeds. That is maybe the reason why I was able to hit Ishwar Pandey for five fours (in an over, against Madhya Pradesh).
Would you say playing the short ball is your stronger suit compared to playing swing bowling?
I am very good at playing the short ball. Against New Zealand, I wasn't leaving it. Whenever I got the opportunity, I started playing the pull. After that, I have practised playing the short one a lot. In 2010, when we toured South Africa, I knew the bounce was different compared to Indian wickets. I worked with Gary Kirsten on how to go about playing the short one. Gary helped me a lot.
How do you develop your game against quality swing bowling?
If I continue playing at the first-class level, we have decent bowlers there. I don't need to compare their speed with international bowlers but Indian bowlers are good at swinging the ball. So I don't need to worry about swing bowling.
But isn't there a difference between someone swinging the ball from off to leg at 122 kph and someone doing it at 140 kph?
There is not a major difference, obviously there is a bit of difference, but that is how it goes. You have to learn to deal with it. Even in the nets, I try and find a ball that swings a bit more so that I can get good practice. It is about finding the right ways. Nobody gets the best bowling in the nets.
Somehow, and a bit unfortunately, you have always been compared with Rahul Dravid from your early days. He had this tendency at times to go into a shell while batting. We have hardly seen that happen with you. How important is positivity to you as a batsman?
Whenever I go out to bat, what I decide is I have to play on the merit of the ball. If it is there to be hit, I am going to hit it. As far as the comparison is concerned, I don't want to compare myself with someone who scored so many runs and is a legend of the game. I am just proving myself.
Say the score is 20 for 3, or 20 for 4. What are you thinking in that situation? How important is the single to you?
A single is important. A boundary is also important. It is about playing on the merit of the ball. If it is a half-volley, you have to hit it for four, no matter what the situation is. Even if the score is 50 for 6, the half-volley is a half-volley. I know how to hit it, so why not play on the merit of the ball and get the runs if you can. If it is not there to be hit, I am going to defend it, as my defence is strong.
Do you remember instances when you got bogged down and were searching where the next run will come from, or have you always been free-flowing?
I have always been free-flowing. If I stay at the crease, I have got enough shots. I have never struggled to score runs. So far I haven't been in that situation. I always try and learn new shots. If you have the shots, you don't need to get worried about getting bogged down. In Test cricket, you will always find the gaps.
As a limited-overs batsman, when you compare yourself to being a Test batsman, where do you think you can improve? Or are you equally confident in both the formats?
At the moment, I am very confident (in both). For the past couple of years, I have improved a lot in the one-day format and have scored many runs. That has helped a lot. Once you start playing at the international level and get experience and talk to the coach and senior players, they can always guide you as to how to go about this format.
I have done it at the domestic level. I believe I can also do it at the international level. It is about waiting for the right time, which will come. I am very confident about that. I don't need to worry.
How different is it playing first-class cricket now that you have faced some of the best Test attacks in the world?
Mentally there is no pressure for sure but at times you are not motivated enough. Even if you fail, you think it is ok, I have scored many hundreds at that level. But it does not go that way. I don't like to get out. When I failed in two innings against Rajasthan and got out early in the first innings against Madhya Pradesh, something was telling me, this is not the way I play. I want to prove myself and whether it is first-class or whatever level, I should be doing my best for the team. Even against Rajasthan, I was confident but at times you become over-confident when you have faced good bowlers, and when you have average bowlers, you end up playing many shots and get out.
You batted for five hours for Saurashtra during your double-century against Madhya Pradesh. It must have taken a lot of strength to hit all these boundaries. After a five-minute break, you were back on the field. Is that love for Saurashtra cricket? How do you keep going?
It is about being honest to the game. I think that is also where fitness comes into play. Since I had injuries on both my knees, I have worked hard on my fitness. That is the reason I could be back soon on the field after scoring a double-hundred. I am very happy that my fitness is shaping up well. It is going to help me play cricket for a long period of time.
It is one thing to be fit, but this honesty that you talk about, has that always been you, that you are answerable to the game?
Yes. At times you don't want to go on the field because you are tired, or you might be fooling around. But that does not happen all the time. I try and be honest most of the time. I would not say that I am 100% honest but I do try and keep myself as honest as possible.