Cheteshwar Pujara: 'The most important thing is to score runs. How you score hardly matters'

The India No. 3 talks about his partnership with Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant in Brisbane, and looks ahead to the England series

Cheteshwar Pujara: "If I'm defending well and that's frustrating the bowlers and they are unable to get me out, then I am winning the battle"  •  Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Cheteshwar Pujara: "If I'm defending well and that's frustrating the bowlers and they are unable to get me out, then I am winning the battle"  •  Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

In part one of this interview, Cheteshwar Pujara looks back at his battle with the Australian fast bowlers on the final day at the Gabba
The 21-year-old Shubman Gill was playing a totally different brand of cricket from you at the Gabba, scoring freely and confidently. Can you tell us more about Gill's batting style?
He is one of the best timers of the ball. He has a natural ability to react to the ball a little earlier. He gets that extra fraction of time to judge the length, the line, and then play his shots, whether it be the pull or a cover drive. He has quick hands and his downswing is so good that even when he defends the ball, with that timing, sometimes, it goes for two or three runs. Sometimes it feels like he is playing with hard hands, but he is so good at his timing.
If I speak about his batting technically, it is a double-edged sword. If you remember, he was out a few times against Pat Cummins earlier in the series, caught at gully or slip, but at the same time Gill can play the same ball for two or three. He is managing it really well. He is very talented and I hope he continues to improve because we need good openers. We have been getting good starts in the last couple of Tests matches and that is a big advantage. The way Rohit [Sharma] and Shubman started in Sydney and Brisbane laid a good foundation.
In a recent conversation with R Ashwin, Vikram Rathour, India's batting coach, said the same - that both Rohit and Gill look for runs. Did it bother you that despite your experience, you were finding it hard to score runs while a youngster like Gill was scoring freely the other end?
Gill's strength lies in the way he plays and that is why he is successful. If he tries to bat time or tries to defend for longer periods, it could pose a challenge for him. I can take the bowlers on too, but if I feel I need to hang back a little, I can do that as well. I can bat according to the situation. At that time, I felt it wasn't wise to take the bowlers on because Gill was already doing that.
It is important to understand what your partner is doing, as a batting unit, how the team is going forward. There could be occasions where both batsmen are playing their shots, but most of the time, if one is going well, the other has to bat normally and not do anything extraordinary. That is what I was trying to do. That is my strength.
From one end you need to make sure there is a lot of assurance, a lot stability, which allows the other guy freedom to play their shots. What ended up happening in that first session was I ended up getting too many balls from the tougher end (smiles).
There was a time when I told myself that if Shubman faces too many balls from this end, it could be dangerous. I don't want to expose him. I didn't communicate that [to Gill], but internally I felt that he looked comfortable at the other end so if I have to just hang around at my end, I will do that.
In the first session on day five, Gill faced 18 balls from Cummins to your 33. So in a way you were protecting him?
Kind of. I felt if he could get out, it was only from that end [where Pujara was batting].
But wouldn't rotating the strike have been a better option, because otherwise you were setting yourself up as a target for the fast bowlers? According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, 45% of the deliveries you faced were in blocks of four or more balls in an over where you didn't get a single run.
There were times I did try doing that, but most of the times I got two instead of a single or three runs. I didn't want to do anything extra just to get to the other end, because if I'm defending well and that's frustrating the bowlers and they are unable to get me out, then I am winning the battle. It is not that I don't want to rotate the strike, but there were limited options, and I did not want to expose myself to getting out to just take a single.
You said you were willing to take the punches in the first session so you could attack in the second. Can you talk about the 20-run Mitchell Starc over in the second session?
Shubman thought he had to take Starc on. He was very confident of the way he was batting, playing his pull and cut well. To be honest, Starc didn't bowl well in that spell. Whenever I got a loose ball, I also hit him. That was part of our strategy. Like I said, in the first session I will be quiet, but in the second session, I told myself I am going to play my shots whether it is Cummins, [Josh] Hazlewood or Starc.
What did Ajinkya Rahane tell you when he came in to bat?
He just told me hang around, play my natural game, and not think too much about the scoreboard and the time left. He came with a positive mindset, looking to play the shots, which helped us. It looked like they were under pressure as the partnership was building. We were in command because their bowlers were a little tired and it was our time to dominate.
India coach Ravi Shastri called you the ultimate warrior after the victory. You must have known that Australia wanted your wicket because that would get them to the Indian tail despite the promise of Rishabh Pant?
Yes, Jinks [Rahane] mentioned it after the game that we needed a batsman from one end who could give assurance to the batting unit, because with wickets in hand, we could accelerate at any point later. Rohit also said it was an important role I had played. Both spoke to me personally. Everyone in the team knew that someone had to play that role for us to win or even draw the game, because if we lost early wickets, they would come hard at us.
How much of what happened on the fifth day in Sydney helped you at the Gabba?
The Sydney match was a positive for us, although it was a draw. We had our chance even there to win. Australia bowled well with the second new ball. But I was very, very confident. That ball by Hazlewood [that bowled Pujara in the second innings at the SCG] was a good one, but if I had survived a few more overs in Sydney, I was seeing the finishing line when I was batting. I had got three boundaries in a row against Cummins off the second new ball, so I was confident.
You showed the intent to win in both Sydney and Brisbane. In his chat with Ashwin, Rathour said intent can also be defined as discipline. Do you agree?
Yes, I have heard from many coaches that intent can be leaving the ball well. Intent can be defending the ball well. It can be playing the session well. As long as you are positive in your intent - whether you are defending, leaving, or playing your shots. The definition of intent is different and it is different all the time. Intent is not just about scoring runs.
As early as last April, Nathan Lyon singled you out as the batsman Australia needed to be wary of. And once again, you dominated Lyon in your own manner. He started the series with 390 wickets, but India denied him the 400-wicket milestone. On the final day at the Gabba, Mark Waugh, on commentary, repeatedly remarked that Lyon was faltering by not having a silly mid-off against you. Were you surprised as well?
I don't think it was a wrong strategy at all, because the pitch was such that if they placed another fielder on the off side, it would open up a gap for me to score runs against Lyon. Since I have been scoring some runs against Lyon, their strategy was to keep it tight when he was bowling and, at the same time, [see] if he could pick up few wickets. There wasn't a lot of assistance for him early on when he came to bowl on the final day and they felt that he had to be a little defensive on that pitch.
We saw Lyon mock-bowling between overs, seemingly imagining you stepping out and getting an edge. You were forcing him to think hard. Did you sense the same?
I know I was winning that battle. He is a great bowler and he knows I'm a good batsman, so there is mutual respect for each other. But I felt I had a little edge because I had also scored against him in previous series.
Lyon appealed for an lbw against you when you were on 26 and Australia reviewed the decision. You and Rahane had a word with the umpires, Paul Wilson and Bruce Oxenford. Was it about Wilson's interpretation of no shot being played?
I was down the pitch and was very confident that it would be very difficult for the ball to hit the stumps. There was enough bounce and the ball had spun a lot. The review showed it was not hitting the stumps. It was also said there was no shot played, but actually I was looking to play that ball and it spun a bit more [than I expected], so it ended up hitting the pad. It was not that I was looking to pad that ball. I was looking to play it.
In the chat with Ashwin, Rathour said he agreed with your logic about why you didn't need to hit an offspinner over the top because you can run twos and threes and create the same impact quietly.
If I am successful with my method, I don't need to take any risk. Even if you hit over the top, you just get four runs, and two extra if you clear the fence. So the question is whether it's worth the risk. I don't think so. Somebody told me recently that I have one of the highest averages against spinners [Pujara's average is 75.92 for batsmen with 2000 or more Test runs from the start of 2010] among contemporary batsmen, including Joe Root [66.09], Virat Kohli [70.47], Steve Smith [56.61] and Kane Williamson [64.41]. What else do you want? The most important thing is to score runs. How you score it hardly matters. If I'm not taking a lot of risks and I'm still getting enough success, then why should I stop doing that? In a Test match, as a normal batsman, you don't look to go over the top of mid-off when a fast bowler is bowling unless there is a need. I think on similar lines [with spinners].
Ashwin joked that he would cut off half his moustache if you ended up hitting an England offspinner over the top during the forthcoming series. So he is safe then?
You never know. There could be a surprise (chuckles).
Joe Root will reach the 100-Test milestone during the first Test in Chennai. What do you like about Root's batting?
His work ethic. I have seen him bat for long periods of time as a team-mate during my stint with Yorkshire and as an opponent from the time he played against us on England's 2012 tour of India. As a batsman, he is clear about his game plans, knows his scoring areas, is clear about his strengths, understands his game very well, and all that shows in the success he has had in Test cricket.
Having faced the best of fast bowling in Australia, you now have to prepare to have another master quick - James Anderson. He has got you seven times and your average against him is 26.85. What's the key difference between facing Anderson in England and in India?
The pace and bounce are different, firstly. Then the balls are different. There is some swing with the SG ball, but it doesn't last and swing as much as the Dukes ball in England. Anderson is very familiar with the conditions and the bowling areas in England and can accordingly plan and set up a batsman. However, when it comes to bowling in India, we have a little bit of an advantage - not just me, but the entire Indian batting unit. We know our strengths and game plans well. When you are familiar with the conditions, it does help.
Rishabh Pant was one of the key pillars, a catalyst for India in Sydney and Brisbane. You batted with him on the final days of both Tests. Can you talk about his growth?
He is fearless, not afraid to play his shots. Also, being a left-hander gives him an advantage. It frustrated the opposition bowling when there is a right-left combination. They seemed to struggle with the length. His knock in Brisbane was much, much better than what he did in Sydney. He played a brilliant innings in Sydney, too, when he scored 97 - I am not trying to take away any credit - but I felt this innings was under pressure and he handled it pretty well.
I especially liked the way he handled Lyon just before and after tea [on the final day] in Brisbane. During the partnership, unlike his usual approach, where he looks to score runs, he defended in one phase - that was very impressive for me. You need to understand the situation. You need understand the game, whether you have to move away from your usual approach, it is very important.
Did you need to temper his approach?
Not in particular, but I always try and communicate to young batsmen that you just need to understand the situation. If he [Pant] is at the crease, the opposition is under pressure. He is so destructive. Even if he is looking to defend, he will end up getting at least one boundary in two or three overs. So I was just telling him to try and make sure you make the right decision. Even if you want to play your shots, make sure you are clear in your mind. I will say this again: the most impressive part, for me, about Rishabh this time was the way he held himself back when it was needed in the last Test.
Do you think India-Australia Test series could have five Tests in the future, like the Ashes?
It can be, no doubt about that. But five-Test series in Covid times is not easy. I think it becomes too long, especially because players need to be part of a biosecure bubble. Mentally, it is very frustrating, especially when you are away from home.
Sometimes you are with the family, sometimes you are not. It's not easy. But if it can be scheduled with enough breaks, then I wouldn't mind it at all.
You didn't score as many runs on this Australia tour as you did in 2018-19, but you got three half-centuries. The last one, in Brisbane, was the slowest of your Test career, but was it also the most important one?
Yes, it is one of the most important fifties I have scored. The other one I remember was also against Australia, in Bangalore in 2016-17 series where I scored 92. The other was Jo'burg [50], which came on one of the toughest pitches I have played on.
So Test cricket is the ultimate format?
Without a doubt. It challenges you physically, mentally, emotionally, and in multiple ways. That can't happen in any other format. If you ask any white-ball player, even in death overs, I don't think anyone will say they feel more pressure than in Test cricket. This is the toughest format of the game.
Every session is different. You can win or lose a game in an hour - like we lost in the first Test in Adelaide. We played really well for the first two days. We were ahead with a 50-run lead and yet we lost the Test because we did not bat well in that one hour.
A day after the Brisbane victory, you told the Indian Express that your two-year-old daughter, Aditi, watching you getting hit repeatedly at the Gabba, said: "When he comes home, I will kiss where he is hurt, he will be fine." Did she do that?
She actually did that - kissed me on my hand. Forget about the injuries, when I returned home, the best part was she was so, so excited. She hugged me for almost a minute or two and she wasn't letting go of me. I was really, really happy to hold her and be back with my family.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo