No festivals. No flying kites. No video games. Cheteshwar Pujara's childhood revolved around cricket. His adult life has been about adapting to challenges - thrown by Dale Steyn's high-quality bowling, Australian sledging, selection blues and public perception. At the Express Adda in Mumbai, Pujara shared his inspiring cricket journey with The Indian Express National Sports Editor Sandeep Dwivedi and Senior Assistant Editor Sriram Veera.
On dealing with sledging in Australia
Against Australia, I have realised that (sledging) is always higher at the start of the series. In the 2017 home series against Australia, one of the toughest series I have played, the first two Test matches were tough for us. In the third Test at Ranchi, the left-arm spinner Steve O'Keefe was bowling when I was batting at 180. Initially, he was sledging but by the end he told me, 'If you are not getting out now, we will have to get wheelchairs'. This time, too, there was some sledging at Adelaide in the first Test but eventually they realised that I do not respond. Stay focused and communicate with your partner and, when you are focused, they can't break you.
On the celebration dance tribute to him
Winning in Australia was a special feeling and the entire team wanted to celebrate. Rishabh (Pant) came up with a dance. It was not meant for me, to be honest, but all of us were trying that dance. I'm not a good dancer so I could not do it and, ultimately, everyone started making fun that Pujara can't dance. But I can assure you that I can dance at some stage.
On when he realised he could become a cricketer
When I was 12, for my first-ever state game for Saurashtra U-14, I had to go to Baroda to play a three-day game. I was crying when I was leaving my mother because I was missing my family. But my mom told me, 'If you want to be professional cricketer, you will have to travel and if you love this game you should do this'. Luckily, I managed 306 runs and I realised that I can have a decent future. Later, I played for India U-19 in Sri Lanka; we lost in the finals against Pakistan but I was the Man of the Series. I knew I had the talent and was very confident that I could one day be part of the Indian team.
As a kid, I used to love playing video games but my mother never allowed me. She would tell me that if I prayed for 15-30 minutes, I would be allowed to play one game. That's how it started but, in time, I became spiritual and started doing prayers every single day. She would say that, good cricketer or not, I had to be a good human being.
On his father
My father never allowed me to participate in any festival - be it Diwali or flying kites. He would argue that if I cut my finger while flying a kite, I would not be able to practise or focus in a match. I was not convinced then but I now realise the kind of commitment required to play at the international level. He didn't allow me to play with tennis balls as the bounce of a tennis ball and a proper cricket ball is different. I used to sneak around and play but whenever he saw me he would say, 'If I see you playing with a tennis ball, I won't allow you to play with the cricket ball.' So, I left playing tennis-ball cricket.
On missing out on academics
I was good at studies but, once I started playing junior cricket for Saurashtra, it was very difficult to maintain studies and cricket. I have not graduated yet and just passed Class XII. I have a dream of doing MBA once I retire. I never had many friends who I could study with and I could not communicate with them after a point - so there were things I missed but, at the same time, it was for a better cause.
On handling phases when runs don't come
That Johannesburg Test (in 2018) was one of the toughest pitches I have played on. I had to make sure that we do not lose too many
wickets early on because I was getting beaten by a lot of distance between the bat and the ball. I had no clue how to score. I told myself that I have to spend some time to let the pitch settle a little more and then I can play my shots after 30-40 balls. There was pressure and it was rising but the most important thing in Test cricket is that you have to be mentally tough. You handle that pressure by fighting through; you can always capitalise later. You realise what shots you can play on those pitches. I just wanted to stay calm. I got my first run after 40 balls or so but I think I just wanted to bat through that time and I knew that it will eventually help the team and that is what happened.
On the toughest bowlers he has faced
I remember my first overseas tour to South Africa in 2010-11, when I was facing Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at their peak. The conditions were very new to me and I was almost clueless on how to play the two. But after that series, I came back to India and worked a lot on my batting. I worked on my backfoot game, got used to what they were doing. I knew that India was going to South Africa again in 2013-14. The results were different but for me, that preparation and fear went away after facing them in 2010-11.
On sledging by the Indian team
Sometimes you have to sledge them because you have to disturb them. I am not one of the leading sledgers but we have certain players who do practise sledging but I cannot name them on this platform. However, you need to make sure that you don't get personal with another player. Sometimes, it has to hurt but it needs to be strictly related to the game. I am someone who will comment on their batting rather than use bad language.
On teams that don't sledge
I think England is the best because they focus on their cricket apart from a couple of their bowlers - who I cannot name - who always try to sledge us but overall, they have been the kindest.
On selection troubles before he made it to the Indian team
It was a tough time but luckily it taught me an important lesson - to score as many runs as possible and that is when the habit of scoring big hundreds came. When I was playing Ranji Trophy and performing well, we had some great cricketers in the Indian team who I could not replace. We had Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman. There was no way I could get into the Indian team and I realised that, from my side, what I could do was to score as many runs as possible in domestic cricket. I started scoring double hundreds. Even double hundreds weren't enough at times and I started scoring triple hundreds and that became a habit. It helps me now playing for the Indian team. You become a little more responsible, you start learning about your game even more. Not many youngsters want to be a part of the Ranji Trophy but I would say that if you want to play Test cricket for the country then the Ranji Trophy is the most important tournament in the country. If you start doing well there, it will help you become a better cricketer.
On dealing with being dropped in a Test
Well, I do speak to my family often when I am frustrated. When you are dropped, it is not in your control. It does hurt if I am not part of the Test team, especially as I only play the Test format. However, I knew the things I had to do to be successful in order to bounce back and I was confident that my chance would come sooner or later.
On his interaction with Kumar Sangakkara before the England series
I had a chat with him because he has scored a lot of runs in county cricket in England. He told me that there were a few shots that I had to avoid while playing in England and there were a few shots I had to work on. He also told me that I needed to be aware of my off-stump. I spoke to him for 30 minutes. I applied the advice he gave me while preparing in Rajkot before the England tour.
On his nickname in England
They also made a song for me that went 'Pooji Submarine'. They could not pronounce Cheteshwar so they came up with Steve. Jack Brooks - the one who gave me the name - saw a headline that addressed me as 'Steve Pujara' and he messaged me saying he never knew it would be that popular. County cricket has taught me many things. The conditions are challenging to bat even when the ball is old and it teaches you a lot. Initially, my family wasn't there so I learned to cook some Indian food. I am not a good cook, by the way, but I am trying to learn. I also do my laundry, which I don't do in India.
On his hobbies
I play different sports - table tennis and badminton. I always challenge the other players to play me at table tennis because, so far, nobody has come close to beating me. Ashwin is good. Rishabh Pant is getting better at TT after getting beaten by me. But so far, I think Karun Nair is the best. Some players carry Playstations and we play FIFA on that. I am very competitive and very aggressive when it comes to FIFA. I am always shouting all over the room and very often people complain in the hotel. At home, when my daughter is around, my wife has asked me to limit playing video games. I play a lot of badminton and go for movies with my family.
On not getting endorsements
I'm someone who doesn't go after endorsements. For me, the true thing is love for this game. My father has taught me that you don't play for yourself, you play for this country and the billion people of the country. So I always feel proud of this game. Endorsements are a by-product of this game. And in my life, I'm a simple man. I love playing this game. If it comes, I'll take it. If it doesn't come, I'm not bothered about it. What I like is the appreciation of the people from this country and from the cricketing fraternity, which means more than any endorsements that I'll get in my life.
On whether he celebrated wildly after Australia
Victories are always special but, at the same time, you have to understand that though this is a moment you should enjoy, there is a lot to play for in the future. So when you're celebrating you have to make sure you don't get carried away with what you are doing because ultimately you still have to respect the game, you have to respect the opponent. We should be happy with what we have done but I've never done anything stupid, and I don't think I'll ever be able to do anything stupid throughout my career.
Four years back, when Puja Pabari married Cheteshwar Pujara, she wasn't much into cricket. However, with time, while travelling with Team India around the country and abroad, she gradually picked up the fine points of the game and also became aware of the pressures that top cricketers deal with as they pursue excellence. Wiser about cricket and cricketers, Puja now takes interest in cricket conversations at home and, at times, even dares to give her own inputs.
On Cheteshwar at home
PUJA: Basically, he's the way he is, quiet and goes about his business. But he has this thing for cleanliness. So, the minute he comes home, everyone is alert. All my house staff will put in extra effort because he won't tell them anything, he'll just go and start cleaning himself. They feel a little alarmed, like 'what is this guy doing?' When he's at home, he's basically at home. Literally. All
We'll sit with my father-in-law and we'll chat. Just sit and relax, talk. Now we have a daughter, so he'll play with her. He'll try and bond with her a little more. He'll make all the effort that I have made. He looks at the way that she's smiling and laughing with me, he'll try and imitate me when I'm not around to entertain her.
CHETESHWAR: I'd like to mention one thing - there's a major difference between what her knowledge was about cricket when we got engaged to what it is now. The reason is my father. She's the mediator. Whenever my father wants to tell me something about my game and he's afraid I won't take it positively, he will tell Puja. If I don't like it, I tell Puja to please tell my father that I'm not going to like it anyway.
PUJA: It's a lot about putting more practice. Sometimes my father-in-law feels that Cheteshwar needs to take it a little slow, or do more. If Cheteshwar was going to practise one time, my father-in-law would be like 'no, no you need to go two times. Please convey the message.' I'm left juggling between the two. Now, I have a thing where, whatever I feel appropriate, I'll be like 'you'll want to do this, this is what I feel, now do what you want.'
CHETESHWAR: She's also started telling me, 'Who gets out to an off-spinner?'
PUJA: It was just one time and I'm very sorry.
CHETESHWAR: That's why I've started playing well against Nathan Lyon.
On father-in-law's talk about cricket
PUJA: My father-in-law can talk cricket 24 hours and he won't get bored. And this one (Cheteshwar) is the opposite. When he's not playing, he doesn't want to talk cricket, he doesn't watch cricket. He just wants to do something else that is not his profession.
So there's a fix because after every good series, everyone is happy. But after a bad series, my father-in-law is desperately waiting for him to make a move so that they can talk cricket. And this one is consciously avoiding. He's like 'I need to relax for a few days and then I'll think about it and let's talk about it on the ground when we go to practice.' But my father-in-law wants to talk about it, talk once more about it, and then wants him to go to the ground and work on it.