Bangalore: Though he failed to see his team home in the second four-day encounter against West Indies A, Cheteshwar Pujara has been India A's best batsman on view - by far - on their tour of the Caribbean.
Pujara, the captain, has made three half-centuries in four outings in a further indication of his class, especially given that in four completed innings, 277 in the first innings of the first match in Bridgetown remains the team's highest total.
Pujara burst on to the international scene with a match-winning 72 in the second innings against Australia in Bangalore in October 2010. Since then, though, it's been a long tryst with injuries, a dip in form and the lack of the big knocks one has come to associate with Pujara.
Pujara did not hide his disappointment when asked about the injuries that have forced him back in the last couple of seasons. "Last year (when he had a ligament injury) was particularly disappointing as we had two big Test tours to England and Australia," Pujara told Wisden India. "It was tough to live through the injury, but what I learnt was we sometimes underestimate a niggle until it becomes serious. I knew I had to prove myself all over again after recovering from the injury."
Pujara marked his comeback during the Ranji Trophy last year with 257 runs from five matches at 32, well below his career first-class average of 54. "Obviously, I would have liked to have got more runs but honestly, I don't think I batted badly," Pujara maintained. "When I score fifties or hundreds, I normally try to covert them into big ones. Since I couldn't do that last season, my knocks went unnoticed. But personally, I was happy with the way I was batting."
When it comes to Pujara, the automatic association is with really big knocks. In October 2008, he scored two triple hundreds for Saurashtra, in an Under-22 tournament, and followed it up with another triple century against Orissa in the Ranji Trophy the same season.
Though he idolises Rahul Dravid and is among the front-runners to replace Dravid in the Test team, Pujara finds parallels between his career and Michael Hussey's. "Hussey is a legend and I look up to him," said Pujara. "I've closely assessed his approach to batting and his temperament. He had to score nearly 10,000 runs in domestic cricket before being given a look-in. So I just tell myself to control what is in my hands. In this case, it is to score runs and leave the rest to god."
Prior to the tour of the West Indies, Pujara was part of Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League. He featured in only three games, but said his time with the Bangalore side had made him a better player. "In terms of preparation for the India A tour, I couldn't have asked for anything better," said Pujara. "Facing Muttiah Muralitharan, Daniel Vettori, Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan in the nets was ideal. I couldn't have asked for more. It was frustrating (not to get too many games), but it was also a great opportunity to learn alongside some experienced cricketers."
With India scheduled to play ten Tests at home between September 2012 and March 2013, a lot of focus is on the current crop of India A batsmen. Dravid's retirement has thrown up at least one vacancy. The competition, seemingly, is between Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane to fill that spot. On the evidence of the West Indies tour, Pujara finds himself in pole position.
"All the players on tour are knocking on the doors of the Indian team, so I don't want to be putting extra pressure on myself thinking of the competition," said Pujara. "Thinking about external factors like selection for the Test team is only bound to weigh you down. My job is just to go out there with an uncluttered mind and play freely, the rest will take care of itself."