Cheteshwar Pujara on fighting for his Test spot: ‘I keep telling myself that I know I belong there’

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Cheteshwar Pujara believes he still has a lot to offer India’s Test side, even though he confesses that being dropped has sometimes left him frustrated, battling self-doubt and nursing a bruised ego. The veteran of 103 Test caps last represented India at the World Test Championship final in June, and was not picked for the side’s tour of the West Indies, their first campaign of the new WTC cycle.

“There have been ups and downs in the last few years and it tests you as a player because having played say more than 90 Test matches, when I got dropped, I still had to prove myself, I still had to prove that I belonged there. Its a different type of challenge,” Pujara told The Final Word podcast on the sidelines of his county stint with Sussex. “Sometimes you do get frustrated, even if you have to prove yourself after 90 Tests and five-six thousand, whatever number of runs I had scored, its not easy.

“Sometimes it plays around with your ego. Having been successful at the international level for so many years, there are still doubts – are you good enough. And if you have to prove yourself again and again, [you wonder] whether it is worth it.”

In the 2021-23 WTC cycle, Pujara was India’s second-highest run-scorer with 928 runs at an average of 32.00, just behind Virat Kohli’s 932 at 32.13. He scored 14 and 27 in the WTC final, and was left out in the aftermath of India’s defeat to Australia at The Oval, to the chagrin of some former cricketers including Sunil Gavaskar, who felt he was being made a ‘scapegoat.’

“I keep telling myself that I know I belong there,” Pujara said. “I know that the kind of contributions I have made to Indian cricket, I still have a lot to contribute. I was given an interesting stat some time ago where I was told that whenever I have scored more than 70 or 80 runs for the Indian team, it is about 80% of the times India have gone on to win… or we haven’t lost that particular Test match. So I know if I score runs for the Indian team, most times we are on the winning side.”

For the record, India have won 23 and lost just six of the 34 Test matches where Pujara has made at least one 70-plus score. For comparison, they have won 18 and lost 10 of the Tests in which Kohli has made 70-plus scores. This, of course, can be interpreted in a number of ways: run-scoring is often at its hardest in defeats, which tend to occur against strong bowling attacks and/or in challenging conditions.

Since being dropped for the second time in 18 months – he was also left out after the 2021-22 tour of South Africa – Pujara has been busy playing both red and white-ball cricket. Over recent weeks he has scored a second-innings 133 for West Zone against Central Zone in the Duleep Trophy, and unbeaten centuries against Northants (106*) and Somerset (117*) in the One-Day Cup for Sussex. Pujara said he enjoys the domestic grind, and not just because his runs keep him in contention for Tests.

“I enjoy playing cricket for Sussex, so when I score runs here, it gets noticed back home,” Pujara said. “That is not the reason why I play for Sussex. I play for Sussex because I enjoy playing cricket here. But the amount of runs I score here or in domestic cricket back home, it always helps me getting back into the team.”

Pujara, India’s eighth-highest run-scorer in Tests, also said he was better off now framing his focus around his game rather than selection. He also said he doesn’t want to be “just another selfish cricketer” who bats for their spot, insteading striving to remain a key match-winner for India in Tests.

“In my cricketing career, I have been put under pressure so many times where I’ve lost my spot in the team. But you just try and play for the team. You don’t try and play for your spot,” Pujara said. “I would keep it very simple because if you play for your spot, you’re just another selfish cricketer who is just being there in the playing XI, playing for the spot but not contributing to the team.

“If I am not good enough contributing to the team, I am happy sitting at home rather than scoring. As an example, If I get out on 20 or 30 it is not that as a batsman you get out [on purpose], but if you score another 20-30 more and end up scoring a fifty and India doesn’t go on and win the Test match, is that going to be helpful for the India team? No.

“It might be helpful for me as an individual but I never have that thought process. I am someone who will think that I should be good enough to win games for the India team. Not just try to survive and be part of the playing XI. If you want to be in the team, you should want to make a difference. Not just be in the team.”

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx