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.