It's a little over a year since Cheteshwar Pujara made a comeback to the Indian team after a horrific knee injury kept him out for a majority of the 2011-12 season. With senior players like Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman retiring, India's search for a reliable No. 3 meant Pujara got his chance against New Zealand in August 2012. That he grabbed the opportunity with both hands and hasn't looked back since is common knowledge now.
Pujara has already scored four centuries and two fifties in ten Test matches in the last one year and averages 65.55 from 13 outings so far. While it is safe to assume he has done enough to be regarded as a regular member in the Test side, Pujara has remained focussed on the present.
Having led India A on a tour to South Africa in July-August this year, Pujara felt the tour provided him with valuable insights into the art of captaincy, which he can put to good use as captain of India A against West Indies A over the next few days.
"Experience teaches you a lot and I was given a lot of opportunities as a leader during my growing up years, so that has helped massively," said Pujara to Wisden India. "I don't look at captaincy as a responsibility, I enjoy it and have learnt a lot. I had built up a lot of experience in junior cricket and when I came to the Under-19 and the Ranji Trophy level. I've always been involved in the game, whether it's close-in fielding or bowling changes or field placing.
"When you constantly think of different dimensions, it helps you analyse the game better, and that experience has come in very handy when I've led India A on overseas tours. Along the way, I've worked with different players across different teams, worked with different coaches. So all these things matter."
With the new season on the horizon, Pujara has an opportunity to hit the ground running with the series of three four-day matches against West Indies A across Karnataka, the first taking place in Mysore from September 25. Pujara will, of course, be one of the stars to watch in the series, but also has a chance to lead Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan, all members of the India A team.
He appeared firmly grounded though and didn't want to look beyond the present. "I don't believe in looking too far ahead," he said. "First things first. West Indies A are a good side and my focus is on winning the series. Many of the players have already started the season in their own way, but for me it will be important to hit the ground running straight away. It's important to set short-term goals and I've prepared well for the West Indies A series."
Incidentally, Pujara had also led India A on the West Indies A tour in June 2012. In the first innings of the series, Pujara came in to bat with India A two down with one run on the board, and scored a crucial half-century. In the second, he made an unbeaten 96 after walking in at 21 for 3. He followed that up with a fifty in the second first-class fixture and finished as the highest run getter in the series.
Pujara attributes the success then and since to the hard work put in during that series. "That was very vital for me and captaining the team didn't burden me one bit," he said. "In fact, it helped me focus a lot more and I'm glad I got runs in that series in challenging conditions. Although we lost the series 2-1, it was a big learning curve for me."
Since that series, Pujara has been on the road for almost ten months at a stretch. He played all ten Test matches of the home season before a finger injury during the series against Australia in March meant he couldn't play the first few matches for Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL VI.
With Bangalore unable to find a stable opening partner for Chris Gayle, Pujara's presence was looked at as a major boost, but what stood out was Pujara's commitment to recovering fully before returning. "Injuries make you wiser," pointed out Pujara. "When you go through the kind of injury I did (knee), then there are times when you doubt your own self. But I'm a very positive person and believed time and age was on my side. Having experienced a number of injuries, I was a lot more aware of my body. I was just focusing on my preparation then, because I wanted to return only when fully fit."
Although he was overlooked for the ICC Champions Trophy in June, Pujara was handed his One-Day International debut on the tour of Zimbabwe in July-August. Although he could manage just 13 runs in two innings, Pujara felt it was just the beginning and said he has it in him to play any format of the game, contrary to the perception of him being a Test specialist.
"It's often a misconception that I'm suited only to the Test format," he said politely but firmly. "I've always been a naturally attacking batsman and if you look at all my big scores, I'd say they've been scored at a strike rate of 70-80 on an average.
"In one-day cricket there are some adjustments to be made, but I feel that is more to suit the new rules of the game than changes made from a personal point of view. Having said that, I'm always looking to improve and convert starts into big scores."