India 319 for 4 (Vijay 126, Pujara 124) trail England 537 by 218 runs
Cheered on by his passionate but impassive father and his much more demonstrative wife, Cheteshwar Pujara scored an emotional century in the debut Test for his home ground of Rajkot. M Vijay complemented him with a more temperate defensive display of 126 off 301 balls to take India closer to safety after they had conceded 537 in five sessions on a pitch expected to become difficult as the game progressed. The 209-run partnership between Vijay and Pujara made them the most prolific duo for India since the start of 2010.
The pitch didn’t deteriorate as much as expected, but to look at scores of 537 and 319 for 4 and conclude that it was a featherbed that produced boring cricket will be a disservice to the batsmen and bowlers who showed a lot of discipline and persistence. There was turn on offer but not variable, and there was a bare patch on a good length for seamers to work with. While for most periods of the day the England’s bowlers kept the batsmen honest without necessarily threatening them, they will be disappointed the quicks failed to generate reverse and the spinners got cut and pulled regularly.
There was always something to work with, but whenever the bowlers got it right, Vijay and Pujara, who came together when Gautam Gambhir’s feet got him into a messy tangle to the seventh ball of the day, worked hard to thwart them. Especially while having to go through almost scoreless periods against the seam of Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad. In the first session Woakes tested them with a five-over spell of six runs and three body blows for Pujara. In the second session Broad went 5-4-1-0, targeting that bare patch just short of a driving length. In the final session Broad and Ben Stokes asked questions with the new ball.
During the Woakes spell in the morning, 14 runs came in 10 overs. While Broad charged in mid-afternoon, 10 overs yielded 18 runs and a chance shelled by debutant by Haseeb Hameed at short cover. Unlike Pujara, Vijay had driven on the up to a ball that landed in that dry patch, and was reprieved on 66. India then welcomed DRS when Pujara successfully reviewed an lbw call when on 86, with extra bounce helping overturn the on-field decision.
While England didn’t give the batsmen much to work with, the batsmen were good enough to recognise spells of play they could exploit. Scoring happened in spurts. Pujara came out and attacked Moeen Ali – out twice to the offspinner in 53 balls before this Test, he used his feet to disrupt his length. India had added 41 in nine overs to their overnight 63 in this period as Pujara raced away to 25 off 29.
Then came Woakes. He didn’t just bowl short at Pujara, he bowled an excellent line, straight at his lid. Pujara, committing to the front foot almost every delivery, kept taking his eye off the ball while trying to sway. To his credit, Pujara never threw his hands up in self-defence, which would have brought the glove or the edge into play. Arvind Pujara, his father who was a wicketkeeper for Saurashtra, watched on without emotion. Puja, his wife, looked concerned.
Pujara scored 6 off 32 in these 10 overs. Once Woakes was done, England went to the man who makes things happen for them. This follow-up after that stranglehold was crucial with half an hour to go to lunch. Stokes, though, began with a half-volley second ball. Pujara’s intent meant he was on to it to drive it to the cover point boundary. Then a straight ball was glanced away, and Pujara had found his flow again. From 118 for 1, India added 44 in this period of eight overs to own the session. In the space of 25 balls, Pujara hit six boundaries to double his score of 31.
Vijay at the other end had his own flow. For long periods of time you only noticed him when a possible two was kept to one because Pujara is not the quickest runner. Otherwise he would be leaving balls outside off, defending those at the stumps, and taking ones or twos only when they were too short or too straight. Vijay was there for his partner, though. After Pujara had been hit for the third time, he got right behind a ball in defence. At the non-striker’s end, Vijay’s bat went in the air, and the glove knocked it in applause, reassuring his partner that he just needed to get through that period of play.
This amount of concentration can be exhausting especially when you are going at a little better than a run every three balls like Vijay was. Vijay, though, had one tool at his disposal: the lofted shot against the spinners. Every now and then, without any rhyme or reason, never ostensibly looking for a release, he would step out to spinners and languidly chip them back over their head. He attempted it six times, hitting two sixes each off Moeen And Zafar Ansari, and a four each off Ansari and Adil Rashid. Those 32 runs were the lubricant for his innings, the final session of which he spent hobbling after being hit in the knee.
There was no spurt in the middle session in which 66 runs came. The drama in the middle session belonged to the Pujara family. Ansari’s reintroduction brought the first bit of natural variation. Pujara was caught right in front, but given the bounce in the pitch – earlier a Rashid googly had failed to draw an lbw verdict because of that reason – and also with the reviews to be reset in 10 overs, he challenged the decision. Finally Arvind showed emotion, that of visible relief as his son, whose cricket has been his preoccupation for more than a decade, was allowed to go for the 14 runs needed to bring up his century.
Pujara gave everybody a nervous few minutes, spending eight balls on 99 before coming back after tea to score the 100th run. Then, against the run of play, Pujara steered the first ball of a new Stokes spell straight to first slip to be dismissed for 124. England still had an hour and a half to make further inroads. The plans and their execution was spot-on. The seamers bowled consistently around the sixth stump to Kohli, but the India captain seemed determined to not go after them even if it meant scoring just 1 run off the first 16 balls he faced.
If there was one criticism of Vijay’s batting and Cook’s captaincy, it revolved around Rashid. Cook underused his most threatening spinner of the day, and Vijay – for some strange reason, despite being such a good player of spin – played the wrong ‘uns off the pitch. In what turned out to be the penultimate over of the day, Rashid got Vijay caught at short leg with a googly followed by Ansari snaring the nightwatchman Amit Mishra.
Not that it mattered now, but India ended the day 19 runs short of avoiding the follow-on