For someone who wore the big shoes of current India coach Rahul Dravid at one down, the veteran batsman did exactly what his illustrious predecessor would do — blunt attacks into submission while batting all day. While some felt he was ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘boring,’ many could see the tremendous value that he added to the team when life was tough for batsmen in the middle.
A fortnight before he launches himself into another bout with the Aussies, against whom he loves to bat, bat and bat, in the Border Gavaskar Trophy, Pujara, now sitting atop a mountain of 7014 runs in 98 Tests at an average of 44.39 with 19 centuries to his credit, took some time out to reflect in an interview with TOI on his quite simply ‘magnificent’ journey that is arriving at a significant station.
You will be playing your landmark 100th Test in Delhi. How would you describe the journey so far?
It’s been a great, remarkable journey. As a child, it was my dream to represent my country. And when I made my Test debut in 2010, it was like a dream come true moment for me. There’ve been ups and downs in my journey, no doubt about that. Unfortunately, there’ve been years where I missed out because of my (ACL) injury, especially early on in my career. After that, looking back at all the years I’ve been with the Indian team, there’ve been many achievements, many players I’ve played with, many coaches I’ e worked with…I couldn’t have asked for anything more. As a player, my game is improving day by day. I’m enjoying my cricket and that’s the most important part.
Early on in your career, when you suffered back-to-back ACL injuries on both your knees and underwent surgeries, did you fear about your career?
In 2009, when I suffered that injury on my left knee for the first time, I wondered what would happen to my cricketing future, because I had never been injured before that. So, that was very challenging. However, when I suffered it for the second time, in 2011 on my right knee, I was more confident. I knew that I had suffered it earlier too, so I can come out of it. After that, I’ve never looked back-with God’s grace, I’ve never suffered a major injury like that.
Also, fitness plays an important part in it, where you can try and prevent certain things. So, after that, I focused a lot on my fitness, and overall, my fitness improved a lot. After those injuries, I realized that I’ve to be on top of my fitness all the time. Luckily, things have been really good since then.
Your journey actually began when you slammed a triple hundred at the age of 14, isn’t it?
When you are that young, you don’t know if you can pursue cricket or not, how successful you can be in this sport…but that was the time I decided that I can become a cricketer, that I can have a career in this game. When you achieve such a landmark at such an age, you get that confidence that if I can do so well at the state level. I’ve a future in this. That’s when I decided I will pursue this game.
Your father, Arvind, and wife (Pooja Pabari) have been solid pillars of support in your life. Has fatherhood given you a sense of more responsibility too ?
Yes, it has. It’s been a great journey as a father. My wife and I are completing our 10th wedding anniversary. My wife has been very supportive in my ups and downs. In sport, you will fail on some days, and succeed on others, but it’s important to be stable. You want your family to be stable and support you. It’s important to spend quality time with your family. So, whenever I’m with my daughter, I completely forget about cricket and talk about her day in the school, what she wants to play, do, explore as a kid, play with toys, whether she wants to go to a park.
Also, my father has been really helpful in my cricketing journey. So, I’m thankful to him. He has been my coach since my childhood days. Even my extended family, my in-laws for example, have been very close to me, and have played an important part in my life.
From your debut Test in Bangalore in 2010, when you scored a fluent 72 off 89 balls to help India chase down a fourth innings target if 207 easily, to the fighting, courageous half-century second innings of the Gabba Test in 2021, when you kept on batting despite being hit repeatedly by the Aussie pace battery. What is about India vs Australia that brings out the best in you?
They’re a competitive side. They throw a challenge at you, and I’m someone who likes to have that (kind of a) battle. It’s not just the verbal battle that I’m talking about, but the cricketing battle. There’s been a lot of talk about the Aussies doing a lot of chat on the field, but the important part that I look up for as a cricketer is a cricketing challenge. They are always a fighting team.
As a player, whenever the team is in a difficult situation, your role is to ensure that you pull it out of trouble. There’ve been times when I’ve played such important knocks, and most of them have come against the Australians. I think it’s about being mentally strong about what you want to achieve for your team, for your country. And that’s something that has helped me to get that motivation to do well against such a good team.
Your best series was in Australia in 2018-19, when you scored 521 runs in 4 Tests at an average of 74.42 to help India achieve a historic maiden series win. You faced a record 1258 balls in the series, and scored three centuries. So clueless were Australia’s bowlers about trying to dismiss you that Nathan Lyon even asked you: ‘you don’t get bored while batting. You were in a ‘Zen’ state of batting, weren’t you?
I’ve enjoyed a few good series, but that was the best series of my cricketing career. The way I was batting, concentrating…there was a lot of physical and mental stress during that series. Every game was a challenge.
How are you preparing yourself for the BGT series?
I’ve played a couple of Ranji Trophy games as a part of the preparation for the series against Australia. Apart from that, I’ve been practicing back home at Rajkot. I can’t disclose particular things, but there are things which I’m working on a few points which will help me during this series.
This time in the BGT, there’ll be no Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant, or Jasprit Bumrah. How do you see your role as a senior pro and a veteran of India v Australia battles in this series?
India vs Australia is always a big, important series. You’ve to be on top of your game, not just as a player, but as a team. Everyone looks forward to competing well against the Australian team, and they’ve especially been a great Test team. So, I look at this as a great challenge, and something I look forward to. Over a period of time, there’s been a great rivalry between us. There’ve been some great Tests between us, and that’s something which all of us are looking forward to in the upcoming series as well.
You’ve played many memorable knocks in your epic career. Which are the ones closest to your heart? We’ve got to start with your smashing Test debut, when you walked in at No 3 instead of Rahul Dravid in what was a pretty tense Test match till you and Sachin Tendulkar got together. Can you rate your knocks for us?
See, each and every knock of mine is important for me. It will be difficult to rate them. But what I can do is mention some of my favourite knocks against Australia, not ranking-wise, though. I’ll start with my debut innings. When you are playing your debut game, it’s always important. I’ll always remember those 72 runs that I scored. There was a lot of pressure on me. As a youngster, I was anxious, I hadn’t done well in the first innings. Since I had scored a lot of runs in domestic cricket, I wanted to prove that I belong to the international level.
After that, the 92 against Australia (in the second innings) in Bangalore in 2017. We were on the backfoot. We had been bowled out cheaply in the first innings, they had a 87-run lead, and in the second innings, we were 120 for 4. And then I had a match-defining 118-run partnership with Ajinkya, and my knock was decisive too.
And then the 123 at Adelaide in December 2018 will always remain very special for me and the team, because we were 41 for 4, and then 127 for 6 in the first innings, and I had little partnerships with Rohit (Sharma) and (Ravichandran Ashwin) and then with the tailenders, and we ended up putting 250 on the board. That was a special knock because it allowed our bowlers to bowl them out for 235 and be in the game. Of course, I can’t forget the 56 at the Gabba in January 2021. It was a special knock for me because when you get hit so many times, to still be able to bat in the middle…it was a different motivation altogether to win that Test and that series… to keep fighting against such a good bowling lineup. The circumstances weren’t favourable for the batsmen. So, you had to fight your way out.
Your battles against Nathan Lyon and Australian captain and ace pacer Cummins have illuminated the Tests that you have played against the Aussies. What makes them so tough to face?
Look, they’ve experience. They understand their strengths really well. Especially when we play them in Australia, they utilise the conditions well. They know which areas to bowl in, in those conditions. So I think the main battle against them is always in Australia. Not to forget that they are great bowlers and they’ve done well even in India, but my important battles against them have been in Australia. That’s something you need to do a lot of preparation for, as a batsman, you need to figure out your ways to counter them. As a batsman, you always enjoy that challenge.
Whom would you rate the toughest bowlers that you’ve faced?
(In 2013-14) I faced Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel when they were at their peak-they were very challenging, especially in South Africa. It’s been a challenge to face (James) Anderson in England. Similarly, Cummins in Australia, was one of the best bowlers I faced in those conditions.
Coming back to your career, after the initial years, there was a perception that you can’t get the scoreboard moving, that you aren’t a stroke-player. You consume too many balls and don’t score enough runs….
See, as a cricketer, you always have ups and downs. There are times when you are batting well, the runs start flowing, and there are times when you are going through a difficult phase in your career. So, you’ve to take some time to play some of your shots. It has happened..I mean when you consume some balls…the important thing in Test cricket is that if you are there at the crease, then you will eventually score runs. So, you’ve to put a price on your wicket. There’s no doubt about it. And, you’ve to also play the situation.
Sometimes, batting at number three, you walk in a difficult situation. When the ball is new, the bowlers are fresh, the conditions are also such that the ball is doing a bit. So, at that time, you’ve to be a bit cautious. You’ve to make sure that the team doesn’t lose too many wickets. So, you bat according to the situation and conditions. It’s not about what I want, as a top-order bat, it’s about how I can help the team to ensure that we are in a comfortable position.
If you speak to any batsman who bats in the top three, and especially when they’re playing in overseas conditions, they’ll always tell you that you’ve to take time. You’ve to make sure that you see the new ball through. And then you can start playing your shots. Yes, every batsman has a different method. Yes, (someone like) Virender Sehwag opted to be positive, but it was his natural game. It was his strength.
It (that he bats too slowly) has always been a perception. If you look at my career and have seen some of my innings in domestic cricket, I’ve the capability to accelerate whenever it’s needed. It’s just about the right time. You’ve to play the situation and make sure that you put the team first, rather than just think about how many balls you’ve faced. That’s because Test cricket is always about ensuring that as a batsman you put a good score on the board.
Did it rankle that for a number of years, you were left unsold in the IPL, despite being a premier batsman in Tests?
Look, (T20) it’s a different format altogether. I always felt that I had the potential to play the shorter format. And I’ve done well whenever I’ve played in domestic and county cricket in all the formats. It’s just not about me, if you look at the IPL, there’ve been a lot of great players, who, despite doing well in the T20 format, have been unsold. I didn’t feel bad as such, but yes, it’s always nice to be a part of the IPL. There are times when I miss the IPL, but currently, I’ve been playing county cricket, which has helped me immensely. Having the experience of those conditions has helped me improve my game.
You were in red-hot form in white-ball cricket in county cricket last season. Do you regret not having played like that earlier in the shorter formats?
I don’t want to look back. I’m someone who always wants to be in the present. There’s no need to think about things which are in the past. Yes, I’m enjoying my white-ball game. I’ve added a few shots in it. I’m working on a few things there, which has helped me become more fearless. Yes, I’ve made a few changes in my white-ball game, because of which I’ve done well in it.
As someone who has a rich experience in first-class cricket with record 56 hundreds in 241 games, what do you suggest to improve the Ranji Trophy?
It’s been going on well. It’s important that the top players, when they are available, participate in the Ranji Trophy. Players should give a lot of importance to it for their progress in red-ball cricket. It’s very competitive. Maybe we can have teams playing 2-3 more games in the league phase, it will help those teams who don’t qualify for the knockouts, gain that experience. It’s difficult to fit in that number of games in our domestic calendar, but it can be looked into.
Saurashtra’s rise in domestic cricket has coincided with your arrival and success as a top player…
If you see their journey, Saurashtra have done really well over a period of time. When I made my debut, we used to play in the Plate Group. However, within a year, we moved to Elite. From then, there’s been a complete transformation. The team got a lot of young, good players like Chetan Sakariya, Arpit Vasavada. Jaddu (Ravindra Jadeja), Jaydev Unadkat came along. The team became very confident.
If you see, over the last 5 years, it’s one of the best teams in the domestic circuit. The team environment is really good. We play as a team, the team is given the first priority. It’s a strong unit, everyone plays for, helps each other, and enjoys each other’s company. Sometimes, I give them my advice, and our players want to learn, improve and get to the next level. We play well despite me, Jadeja and Unadkat not being around. The reason is that there’s a lot of talent out there.