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Wall to lean on, Cheteshwar Pujara looks to be fearless in approach


BENGALURU:  In the longer format, Cheteshwar Pujara is one of the first players on India’s team sheet. His name has been gradually dropping down that list in the last two years. The batter has been scoring here and there, but lack of a three-figure score since January 2019 has put him under bit of pressure, especially when the team has been playing only five specialist batters.

Effectively, he has gone 34 months without a century in red-ball cricket. That is a long period for a player, who is regarded as a Test specialist. That position, however, comes with a huge burden as he does not have the cushioning of other format runs to reduce the criticism.

There have been instances when his intent has been questioned. Case in point: he opened his account in the second Test match against England in 35 balls in August. In his last seven matches, he has been dismissed for a single digit score six times. However, if there has been anything positive, his approach in the last two Tests at Leeds and Oval has shown his willingness to change.

At Leeds (189-ball 91), his innings included 15 fours, while his 61 in the Oval had nine. More importantly, it was willingness to score quicker runs, which caught the eye. That was a change of approach, and it will be interesting to see if the 33-year-old will play a similar brand of cricket in the upcoming two-match Test series against New Zealand, starting Thursday at Green Park Stadium in Kanpur.

“When it comes to performing, the mindset was a little different (in those Tests). When it comes to technique, there was no major change. It was just the approach. I was a little fearless, which helps. I feel that you do not need to put too much pressure on yourself and just try and go there and enjoy the game, rather than worry about what is going around. That was my mindset during the England series. So far, the preparations have been good and the experience of playing in Indian conditions is there. That is going to help in the next few matches,” said Pujara in a virtual interaction on Tuesday.

Though India are playing at home, it is not going to be easy against the strong Black Caps. He will have to be up against Neil Wagner, one of the best in attacking the batters with his barrage of short balls. In the spin department, Ajaz Patel and Mitchell Santner will be a huge threat too.

The right-hander is also fully aware of the pressure, which exists with the likes of Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer and even Hanuma Vihari breathing down his neck for a starting place in the upcoming South Africa tour. Another set of failures and things could get complicated for the batter. He has scored six half-centuries in 2021, but one of his major objectives in the series will be to convert such scores into big hundreds.

“I have been scoring runs...80s and 90s. The century has not come, but I am not worried about the score.  As long as I keep batting well and contributing to the team’s total, I am happy. It is just a matter of one innings. When the century needs to come, it will come, but my focus is to prepare well and bat well. As long as I keep doing that the big one is just around the corner,” said Pujara, who added that all the players are looking forward to new coach Rahul Dravid’s guidance.