In a chat with TOI, Pujara talks at length about how he conquered the ‘thunderbolts’ from the Aussies, the challenges batting against Pat Cummins, playing alongside Rishabh Pant, the upcoming England series, and more. Excerpts:
Take us through that gritty 56 in the second innings at Brisbane. Was it your best knock, considering the pitch and the attack?
It was a tough innings. I can’t recall any innings in which I was hit all over my body so many times, but I was very determined to not give my wicket away. I wanted to bat the first session well. It was a two-and-a half hour session, we were expecting 35-37 overs to be bowled. If we started well, we had a very good chance of winning that Test, or it would be a draw. There was more pressure on them to pick up wickets in the first session. It was important that I didn’t get worried about getting hit, because on that pitch and from that particular end, it was difficult to judge the bounce. They were bowling short, but the ball was coming at body height. Sometimes, you just don’t want to try and play with the bat. If you go on the backfoot and try to play on top of the ball, there is a chance that you might glove it and then get out. So, my strategy was very simple: if the ball rises, I’ll make sure that I don’t mind taking the ball on the body. It would hit me, but I won’t get out.
Did you ever think of retiring hurt?
Never. I kept telling myself that I’m not going to go out from here. Yes, the toughest part was when I got hit on my finger, because after the second Test, when we were practising at Melbourne, I got hit on that finger. So, I was already in a bit of pain during the third Test at Sydney. I got hit on the same spot again (at the Gabba) and I felt that I may have broken my finger. But Nitin Patel, our physio came in, and told me that even if it is broken or whatever, you’ve been handling this pain really well. If you need, I’ll give you a painkiller. I told him that I don’t want to take a painkiller, and I’ll try to bear the pain. And I carried on. I couldn’t hold the bat properly as I wasn’t able to grip it with my bottom hand. But I told myself that ‘this is the most important day of the series.’ I didn’t want to take any chance.
Have you recovered from the blows?
Almost! There are still some marks, the blood is still there. There’s still a bit of a bruise and a bit of pain in that, but it’s nothing significant. Only when I touch that spot, I experience pain. Nothing serious.
Did the Aussies sledge you during your knock?
They did. But it doesn’t affect me, because I’m more focused on what I want to do. So, even if someone says something, I don’t pay attention to what they say. I know my gameplan well, I know what I want to do when I’m at the crease. I don’t get disturbed by what they’re saying.
What did you tell Rishabh Pant during your partnerships with him in Sydney and Brisbane?
Ultimately, we were building a partnership. When he was batting in Sydney, I didn’t have to tell him much, because he was playing his shots. That’s how he bats. In Brisbane, I had to tell him to be careful when Nathan Lyon was bowling, because there was a stage where he was batting well, but I felt that he was getting carried away when Lyon was bowling. He was the only bowler against who he looked like making an error. Credit goes to him. He did pretty well. Especially in the session between lunch and tea, when Lyon was bowling outside the off-stump, he defended, let the ball go outside the off-stump. And when he had to take him on, he started playing his shots.
You faced criticism from former players like Allan Border and Ricky Ponting for your slow rate of scoring. How do you react to it?
I don’t need to react. They have an opinion. They have the right to say what they feel like. But, I feel that I’m doing a job for my team and I know what’s best for the team and myself. If I have a gameplan, and if it’s helping me and the team, then I just need to stick to that. A lot of times, it happens that Ponting, or anybody, might want to say something to put the opposition player under pressure, because they also want the Australian team to win.
How did the turnaround happen after 36 all out?
Basically, what we told each other was: ‘This is over. There is nothing we can do about it. Once we’d lost the game, there wasn’t much we could do about it. We told ourselves that it’s a three match-series now. And it’s a red-ball series. The thing is that they play well with the pink ball, and it’s been an advantage to them because they were familiar with the pink ball, having played eight-10 Tests in Australia with it. Whereas, it was our second pink ball Test, and first-ever pink ball Test in Australia. We weren’t too experienced with the pink ball (in those conditions). And that’s what happened, I think. The whole ball game changed after the series was played with the red ball.
How much did coach Ravi Shastri and captain Ajinkya Rahane back you during this tour?
Both backed me completely. There was not a single time when they asked me to play faster. They always told me: ‘You play your natural game. Don’t think or worry about anything.’ If you look at the entire series, there were only three centuries either side, by Ajinkya and Labuschagne and Steve Smith. Not too many runs have been scored. Both knew that I was doing a good job for the team.
Has any bowler troubled you as much as Pat Cummins did? Do you remember getting out to the same bowler five times in a series?
Maybe not in one series. He got me out many times, but overall, I felt that as the series went on, I handled him pretty well at the later stage. He was bowling really well in the first two Tests. He bowled some good deliveries. When I look back at this particular Test series, I can say that I got out to some really good deliveries which they bowled. As a batsman, I just need to accept it and move on. If you get out to a very good delivery, then it’s fine. Otherwise, I felt that in the last two Tests, I was on top (of him). In the Sydney Test, the ball reared up from back of a length and struck my glove. Even if I was batting on a double-hundred, you can’t control that ball.
How confident are you of doing well against England?
I’ve played against Jofra Archer in county cricket. However, that was in England, and a couple of years back. Now, I will be playing against him in India. It’ll be different. I look forward to this challenge. I’ve faced Stuart Broad and James Anderson in England and in India, which will definitely help me. It’s one of the best pace bowling pairs I’ve seen in world cricket who look to bowl in tandem.