For the third day in a row, England got off to a strong start at Lord’s. They began day four of the second Test against India with a 27-run lead, and after 23.1 overs they had the three wickets they would’ve wanted most – KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane came together at the crease then. India’s score read 55/3 but effectively, it was was 28/3. The pressure was well and truly on. From having a near perfect day one, at the end of which a defeat seemed improbable, India had seen their advantage slip away gradually. And with more than five sessions of the match still remaining, they were staring at the possibility of a bitter loss.
But Pujara and Rahane, the two Indian players under most pressure to perform, saw a timely return to form. Timely for themselves and timely for their team. The duo batted together for about a session and a half, 49.3 overs to be precise, and added 100 runs. In that process, they kept India’s hopes, of at least avoiding defeat, alive.
Pujara had scores of 9, 12*, 4, 15, 8, 17, 0, 7, 21 and 15 in his last 10 Test innings. The 33-year-old, who has played a key role in many famous Indian wins, including the one in Australia earlier this year, had been severely short on confidence at the crease in recent times.
On Sunday, too, he had a tentative start. His foot movement was limited, his bat was angling to the leg side, and he took 35 deliveries to get off the mark. But as always, he was determined to not throw his wicket away. Which was exactly the kind of attitude his team needed at that point. His drives weren’t flowing and his cuts weren’t connecting but slowly and steadily, he was starting to see the ball better.
There were loud cheers when he finally got off the mark, when he faced his 100th delivery, and even when he went on to face his 200th delivery. His strike-rate never shot up but it didn’t matter, he seemed to be enjoying his time out in the middle. The boundaries eventually came and he started to rotate the strike more freely.
It took a nearly unplayable delivery to dismiss Pujara. It was against the run of play but he had done a big job for his team by then. As is often the case with his knocks, there was much more to his 45 off 206 than meets the eye.
Rahane, meanwhile, was the more aggressive of the two in the partnership. He, too, had a lot to prove and had scores of 1, 5, 15, 49, 27, 7, 10, 67, 0 and 1 in his last 10 innings. The 33-year-old took his time to settle in and kept his focus on trying to play close to the body.
It was only after he got to 4 off 31 that Rahane played a shot that would’ve truly boosted his confidence. Ollie Robinson banged it on and he pivoted on the back foot to pull it for four. And three overs later, he clipped one off pads to pick up his second boundary.
Rahane, like Pujara, was in no rush but he seemed to rotate the strike better. He rode his luck and was dropped by Jonny Bairstow on 31 but as is the case with every good Rahane knock, there was a flow to it eventually. He finished with 61 off 146 and his dismissal came at an inopportune moment, but India led by 140 runs at that time and found themselves in a respectable position.
It helped both the batsmen that the conditions were good for batting. The pitch was starting to break up a bit but there weren’t any real demons in it. The ball wasn’t new either and there was limited movement on offer for the fast bowlers.
But all that doesn’t take away from the quality of Pujara and Rahane’s knocks. They were under tremendous pressure and they dug deep to stop England’s charge. It took a great amount of discipline from the duo to bring about that shift in momentum in the match. The hosts seemed to be cruising when they came together at the crease but by the time they were separated, India might have even been entertaining the thought of a win.
“Our job is to work on the processes,” said India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour after the day’s play.
“I’ll be concerned if they (Pujara and Rahane) aren’t working hard or planning well, but they’re doing all of that. They’re working very hard and they have their game plan sorted. In cricket, these phases (of low scores) will come. Especially with the guys who have been playing for so long, you will have times when they are not scoring runs. But as long as they’re trying their best and giving their best, which they are, I don’t think we are concerned at all.”
India finished the day with four wickets in hand and a 154-run lead. As well as Pujara and Rahane played, there is still quite a bit of work to be done for an England win to be avoided. But whichever way the match goes, with three more Tests to play in this series, India will be pleased with the confidence gained by two of their most senior batsmen.