Going unsold in the Indian Premier League auction in February this year has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Cheteshwar Pujara. While the IPL was on, Pujara travelled to England for what turned out to be a highly successful county stint for Sussex, which has helped him force his way back into the India Test squad for the deciding Test in Birmingham in July.
“You can say that now in hindsight. Had I been picked by an IPL team, there were major chances that I wouldn’t have got any games. I would have just gone (to nets) and practised. Getting match practice and practice in the nets is always different. So when the county thing happened, I just said yes. The major reason I said yes to the county (stint) is that I wanted my old rhythm back,” Pujara told The Indian Express from Paris, where he is on holiday.
With scores of 6, 201 not out, 109, 12, 203, 16, 170* and 3, Pujara slammed 720 runs for Sussex in five County Championship games at a staggering average of 120 across April and May.
Before flying to England, Pujara hadn’t found a spot in the India Test team for the two home Tests against Sri Lanka in March. The selectors had decided to give more chances to younger players such as Shreyas Iyer, who had performed well in his debut Test series against New Zealand last year. On Sunday, though, when the national senior selection committee met to pick the team for the home T20Is against South Africa and the lone away Test match against England, Pujara’s name was included in the latter. However, the selectors didn’t pick the other veteran batsman Ajinkya Rahane, who had an underwhelming start to the IPL for Kolkata Knight Riders, after which he was mostly benched for the rest of the franchise’s games. Meanwhile, Pujara’s county success had raised his hopes of making an India comeback in whites.
“I was positive, there was no doubt about it. The way my county stint went, I was hopeful that I will make a comeback to the Indian team. But when I went to play county cricket, the India comeback was never on my mind; I just wanted to find my rhythm and I knew one big innings would help me find my rhythm back.”
Pujara said that during his county stint, he was on the lookout not just for centuries, but scores over 150 to get his famed focus back; he would go on to make three of those, two of which were unbeaten.
“I was just trying to find my old form. If you look at my innings in the past, I was getting 80s, 90s, so I never felt I was out of form even when the big runs were not coming. I was just hoping to get big runs. Big runs means not 100 but 150-plus scores. Because to get back to my usual concentration level, I needed those big scores. And I found that in England. I found my rhythm and as I got those runs, things began to fall in place.”
Spending hours batting in the middle is what Pujara is known for, and he added that getting into that mode once again also made him more aware of where his fitness levels were. “Once I bat for long, it not only improves concentration, but it also improves fitness. The county stint helped me to see where my fitness stands. One cannot play big innings if one does not have proper fitness. So everything went well,” Pujara concluded.