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Interviews

Cheteshwar Pujara: 'My passion became my profession'

On the verge of his 100th Test, the India batter looks back at his top innings and talks about the qualities that have made him the player he is

Cheteshwar Pujara looks on, Somerset vs Sussex, Royal London One-Day Cup, Cooper Associates County Ground, Taunton, August 19, 2022

"I normally have the attitude that as long as I am there at the crease, I can still make things possible to win a game for the team"  •  Getty Images

A dozen Indian players have played over 100 Tests each. This select group is expected to be updated this week, when Cheteshwar Pujara plays the second Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy against Australia. A one-format player, Pujara, who made his Test debut 13 years ago, has kept himself relevant despite regular scrutiny over the way he plays his game. By being honest to his beliefs, sticking religiously to his routines and staying disciplined, he has built a career that ranks among the finest of this era. In a chat with ESPNcricnfo, conducted before the start of the Australia Test series, Pujara opens up on his journey and where he is headed.
Is it going to be just another Test or is your 100th Test special? Do you feel proud?
It is like when you are scoring runs - when you reach 50 or when you reach 100, there's a special feeling. But again, when you score a hundred, you enjoy that moment but you still carry on. There is a satisfaction after reaching a milestone, but there is always a job to do.
Yes, it will be my 100th Test match, but you still have a job to do for the team and you focus on that a bit more. It is similar to batting: when you reach the hundred, you start again. Sometimes you want to score a double-hundred. Here it is not like that - you can't reach 200 Test matches. But you move on to the next target.
We are playing an important series against Australia. Yes, the second Test will be my 100th, but there will be two more Tests after that which will be very important for us to win to qualify for the WTC final.
Matches and series against Australia have been important in your career. It was against them that you made your Test debut in Bangalore in 2010. What do you remember of that day?
Feels like it happened yesterday. There have been many ups and downs, but that is the game I have enjoyed the most. I still remember when I was handed the cap, that feeling, that pressure moment. As a youngster you are anxious, you are nervous. The feeling of playing for the Indian team for the first time is something you can never forget. Even after that, playing your first overseas Test match, the kind of pressure you go through, you figure out that you need to work on your team to be successful in overseas conditions.
I have played international cricket for more than a decade now. You learn so many things: you are tested in your character, in your temperament, in your patience, as a person. This game is not just about what you do on the field, it's also about how you behave off the field, and that also has an impact on what you do on the field because if you are not disciplined enough in Test cricket, you will see the results eventually on the field. That's why Test cricket is special. Yes, T20 cricket is more popular now but if you speak to any Test cricketer, regardless of how many matches they have played, they will tell you it takes a lot to become a successful Test player.
You only play one format, and your desire to excel in it is as strong as ever. What has kept you going?
Firstly, it's the love for the game. My passion has become my profession. I never dreamt of doing anything else apart from playing cricket. I don't need any kind of motivation to do well. And it's not just about international cricket. If you look at my performances in games at whatever level - club, state, county, country - no one can question my commitment. I hate losing.
As a recent example, I can talk about the Ranji Trophy game against Andhra where we lost and I scored 91. That was one of the best domestic innings I played, considering the kind of pitch we were playing on. We lost by 130-odd runs [150 runs]. I was the ninth wicket to fall. I felt if I could have done something else… because Dharmendrasinh Jadeja was batting at the other end and Yuvrajsinh Dodhiya was still to come. I still felt that there was a possibility as long as I was there. That's the kind of attitude I normally have: as long as I am there at the crease, I can still make things possible to win a game for the team.
When you are playing for the Indian team, you don't need that motivation. It comes from within. Every time you walk onto the field, you are always switched on. I don't think there is any drive required. I want to give my best and try and achieve the best I can.
Your ability to concentrate has been a hallmark of your game. Pakistan wicketkeeper-batter Mohammad Rizwan, your Sussex team-mate last year, said he has never seen anyone with better concentration than you. How do you manage to keep your focus intact at all times?
It is about how you are as a person, how your journey has been. I live a very simple life and that's the reason I don't get distracted by too many things. Also, as a person I believe in God and that's a strength which gives me a lot of positivity when you are going through a tough time. At times there are so many things spoken about you. Sometimes people will talk negatively about you or criticise you, but to stay positive is important. That's why I feel that when you believe in a superpower, it gives you that strength.
Yoga has helped me immensely in the last several years, and I've been doing it regularly. That has also helped me improve my concentration.
Most importantly, if you forget the things that are around you, you can try and bring down your focus to one particular thing. For me, when I'm batting out there in the middle, I try and keep my mind blank, I try and just focus on what I have to do. And to do that you need to also forget what the bowler will do, because in cricket you have to be in the present, you have to look at the ball and let your instinct follow. For that you need to prepare well, you need to know what you are going to face, utilise your muscle memory. It is not just concentration on the field - the combination of things you have done beforehand is equally important.
I'm guessing you don't spend a lot of time on your phone?
(Laughs) No, I don't. Apart from talking to friends and family, not much, I do agree. So there is one less distraction. Also, I try and avoid social media. As a sportsperson you need to be active on social media - that's a different thing. But I don't try and see what other people, celebrities, are doing. Even when someone is talking about me on social media, whether it is positive or negative, I stay away. Because I know my methods, I know my routine, I know what I have to do to become successful. When you have done that over a period of time, you figure out a way and you stick to that.
You have always kept going back to domestic cricket. How big a role has that played in your career?
It has, definitely, without any doubt. If I look back a few years when Covid-19 was around, that was the time I had a little bit of a challenge in finding my rhythm. The reason I would say is, I didn't play enough domestic cricket to be in touch with the game. I feel that no matter how much time you spend in the nets, playing first-class matches is very important to be successful at the international level, especially in the Test format. You need that preparation, you need that time in the middle to find your rhythm, to find your concentration, even for your feet to move.
Would you advise youngsters who play just white-ball cricket for India to also play first-class cricket?
Yes. If you are just playing white-ball cricket and if you aim to play Test cricket, then you should definitely play Ranji Trophy, without any doubt. Otherwise you will eventually get exposed at the international level in red-ball cricket. If you look at examples of whoever has done well in Test cricket, they would have played some red-ball cricket - whether it is Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy or India A, Rest of India. It is slightly different for the bowlers, but for a batsman, it is important to play red-ball cricket.
Which are some of your innings you look back on fondly?
Without ranking, among my top innings would be the 72 on Test debut. Then my first hundred in South Africa, 153, in 2013.
In 2010, my first overseas series, I had a tough time. I batted at No. 5 or 6. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were at their peak. I still remember, I spoke to Rahul bhai [Dravid] that I am finding it difficult because I have always played on Indian pitches where the bounce is low and the pace is slow. And in South Africa I am finding it difficult to get acclimatised and it is like facing a different challenge altogether. He gave some good advice. I worked on it. I ensured that whenever I came to South Africa next, I would do well, I wanted to be successful against those bowlers. That happened in 2013 in Jo'burg.
In 2017 against Australia in Bangalore is another innings I will remember. I have said many times that sometimes your fifties are more valuable than some of your hundreds. And that was one of those knocks which decided not just that Test match but the entire Test series. If we had lost that match, the series was on the line, so it was a series-defining knock for me personally and for the team.
The 123 in Adelaide in 2018 - first innings of an important series. Again, I had done my homework and it paid off and I was really pleased with that.
Last one is the fifty at the Gabba in the 2020-21 series where I got hit so many times on my body and I had to work my way out. I felt it was an important innings from the team's perspective.
You have just turned 35. It is an age when chatter begins about how much longer a player might go on. James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who both only play Tests, have shown that skillsets don't degrade. As a batter, what do you reckon?
I don't want to set a target for myself. I want to be in the present. I want to take it one Test match at a time rather than thinking about how long I can play. It's important to enjoy the game, it's important to be on top of your game, and whenever you are not able to contribute, or you are not performing to the best of your abilities, you can consider the next step. I have just turned 35. There's still some time.
When I first got injured [right knee surgery in 2009] I didn't know how long I would play. I had my left ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] reconstructed, and then the second one in 2011. When I got injured in 2009, I was playing for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL in a practice game. I actually didn't have any idea of what the injury was. Before that I had never had a serious injury, so I was in shock. I really didn't know whether I would be able to carry on playing. So whatever has happened since then has been a bonus. At the time I wasn't familiar with rehab and surgery - I was sort of traumatised and I didn't know what to do. I was told I would be out of the game for six months. After I had the second knee injury in 2011, that was when I realised I needed to look after my body, and since then I have been paying a lot of attention to my fitness.
It is probably accurate to say that you will play till you believe that you are capable of being the match-winner you have always prided yourself on being. But is it also your goal to ensure you average 50 before you retire?
Well, that is not a goal I would set for myself. That is something I think should happen, because as a cricketer you always want to do well and score as many runs as possible. It is about scoring runs in each and every Test match. And when I score those runs, the average will go up. My aim and goal is definitely to score runs, not to think about the average because that is a by-product.
Will your family be at the Test?
Yes, they will definitely be watching. My dad has been my inspiration. He is someone who started coaching me when I was eight years old, so it's been a long journey for him too, to see me play over that period of time, to have guided me as a coach. I'm very thankful to him and it's a proud moment for him also to see his son play his 100th Test. And he's a very emotional person, so for him it will be a very big moment.
Also, I will be completing my tenth wedding anniversary soon. It is not just concentration on the field - the combination of things you have done beforehand to achieve that is equally important. My wife also has seen a lot of ups and downs and she has been always with me. When we got engaged, she didn't have any knowledge about cricket. She has been following the game for about eight or nine years now, so she understands the game, she understands why my routine is the way it is. Sometimes she will tell me that you better make sure that you are completing your gym sessions rather than worrying about anything else. She has managed everything really well, not just on the house front, but there are so many things in a cricketer's life, including endorsements, so I can be relaxed and focused on my game.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo