Kohli and Pujara put England on back foot

India 317 for 4 (Kohli 151*, Pujara 119, Anderson 3-44) v England

It was a day of firsts at the Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium in Visakhapatnam. The first day of the first Test at what is now the 111th such venue in world cricket, and quite possibly the first occasion on which a pitch invasion by a stray dog has brought about an early tea interval.

But, notwithstanding a trio of breakthroughs for England’s returning attack leader, James Anderson, who was playing in his first competitive fixture since August, it was also a day dominated by numbers three and four – specifically Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, who compiled a masterful pair of hundreds in a 226-run stand for India’s third wicket that has, for the first time in this series, given their side unequivocal control of the contest.

England, emulating their wholehearted efforts in the drawn first match at Rajkot, started the day with a flourish and finished it with a grind, digging deep on all fronts – with seam and spin, new ball and old – to demand that India had to work hard for their runs. But by the close, with Kohli still in situ on 151 not out, his 14th century in his 50th Test appearance, the task awaiting them was already looking formidable.

India’s overnight scoreline of 317 for 4 was everything that Kohli could have wished for after winning a vital toss. First-innings runs, on a wicket that neither captain expects to last five days, will be a critical aspect of this contest, and Alastair Cook had cut an almost condemned figure after missing out on the chance to have first use. “Now we’ve got nothing to lose,” he admitted after calling incorrectly. He might wish to revise that assessment now.

Ominously for England, there had been glimmers of the assistance that the pitch is likely to offer at every juncture of India’s day, including signs of turn and uneven bounce for the spinners and indications of reverse swing in the evening session. Anderson, in particular, tried desperately to exploit that aspect in a wholehearted five-over spell that yielded the vital scalp of Pujara for 119. And then, with two overs of the day remaining, he struck with his third delivery with the second new ball to unseat a tentative Ajinkya Rahane for 23.

But up until those late intercessions, such was the quality of India’s third-wicket stand that England had little option but to cling onto the batsmen’s coat-tails and seek to manage the speed of their progress, rather than the inevitability.

England certainly started their day’s work with a flourish. Stuart Broad struck with his fifth ball of the match as KL Rahul, Gautam Gambhir’s replacement at the top of the order, fenced outside off to poke a sharp catch to third slip, before Anderson, fit again after three months out with a fractured shoulder blade, suckered Murali Vijay with a bouncer to leave India perilously placed on 22 for 2 after five overs.

But Pujara, fresh from his first-innings century at Rajkot, and Kohli, whose masterful 49 not out had averted calamity on the final afternoon of that match, were precisely the right pair to set aside the scoreline and play the conditions as placidly as they were – at this stage – proving to be.

Chances to unsettle their progress were few and far between, as is often the way in the subcontinent, and England were left ruing two fleeting moments in particular: first, a crazy over from Adil Rashid midway through the morning session, when Pujara might have run himself out twice in three deliveries – his belated response to Kohli’s clip to midwicket was especially close to curtains.

And then, in a moribund passage of play in the first hour after lunch, Kohli was dropped on the hook by Rashid at fine leg when he had 56. Ben Stokes by this stage had settled into an aggressive back-of-a-length line in a bid to slow India’s progress to a crawl and Kohli, who had survived a similar miscue for his second boundary of the day off Anderson, took the bait but Rashid’s fingers couldn’t spring the trap.

It would prove to be a costly miss, but it was Pujara who responded most immediately to that sense that England had lost control of the contest. He signalled India’s charge in the final half-an-hour of the afternoon session by lambasting Zafar Ansari for six and four in consecutive deliveries, before making a mockery of Broad’s 8-1 off-side field by picking the solitary gap at backward point for his 11th four of the innings.

As Cook fumbled for his options, Moeen Ali, England’s senior spinner, was curiously overlooked until the 40th over of the innings – an inexplicable delay, notwithstanding the early control that Rashid in particular had been able to exert. Instead, armed with a flat ball, he encountered Kohli in full exhibition mode and his seventh over was banished for three fours through cover, third man and mid-on respectively.

It was the left-arm spin of Ansari to whom Cook first turned, in the 11th over of the innings, but despite his tendency in his first two Tests to create chances, today his 12 overs were milked for 45 runs. Both Pujara and Kohli had surged into the nineties when the afternoon session was brought to a close four balls early, when a local mutt chose to lead the groundstaff on such a merry dance that the umpires pointed the players to the pavilion.

The distraction might well have played into England’s hands – not even the most assured of cricketers like to dwell over their landmarks. But Pujara in particular was not standing on ceremony. A yawning six off Rashid, high over the midwicket boundary, brought up his tenth Test century from 184 deliveries, and his third in succession, following on from his whitewashing-sealing effort against New Zealand at Indore last month.

Kohli followed suit three overs later, with a punch through the covers to welcome Anderson back for his third spell, and before the close he had marched past 150 for the fourth time in Tests, with scarcely a shot out of place. He had one last moment of good fortune on the stroke of 80 overs, when he missed a reverse-sweep against Moeen that was shown, on review, to have been clipping leg. England took the second opinion in the knowledge that they would be getting their top-ups one delivery later. It was a shot to nothing, and nothing was the upshot.

By the close, England’s worries weren’t limited to the scoreline, or the state of the wicket, which was already showing significant rough in the bowlers’ footmarks. The fitness of Broad was also a significant concern. His morning spell had been prematurely – and inconveniently – halted after three overs when he reopened a cut on his right wrist while diving in the outfield, and though he did front up to bowl a solitary new-ball over before the close, he appeared to be hobbling badly and had already left the field for a change of boots.

England will need a change of something if they are to haul their way back to parity in this contest, but not for the first time, it was their application, not their attitude, that had been found wanting. Anderson, armed with the new ball and a good night’s sleep, might be their best hope. But Kohli already has 151 reasons to be supremely satisfied with India’s position.


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