It was overcast, it was cold, the ball was swinging, England’s pacers were in their element and India had their backs to the wall. On most days, these would be the required conditions for Cheteshwar Pujara to go into a shell and play one of his incredible defensive innings; the kind that only he and no one else can play. On most days. But on Friday, the right-hander’s intent seemed to first shock the hosts and then push Virat Kohli and Co to a new level in the third Test.
Coming into the second innings, Pujara would have been under immense pressure. There were murmurs, not for the first time in his career, about his place in the side. The chatter just wasn’t about him though. In recent times, India’s No 3-4-5 have struggled to score runs and that has at times led to this batting line-up, as we saw in the first innings, simply collapse the way hollowed-out wood does sometimes.
It all started with England bowling a bit too straight — they probably think Pujara is a bowled or an LBW candidate. But in trying to do so, they fed him deliveries on his legs. And if you have seen the 33-year-old bat for a while, these deliveries count as gifts. He smacked three fours off three of those balls and before he knew it, he had scored 14 off 13 balls.
He usually takes his time to get set before playing his shots but it was clear that Pujara had a different game plan in mind. He was looking for runs and not just looking to spend time in the middle and that change in mindset altered his approach quite significantly.
His footwork was better and more decisive, either forward or back — and because he wasn’t just looking to defend, he had more options. This also removed the hesitancy we have come to associate with Pujara in recent times. The in-between space that he tended to get caught in which would then induce that half block because he wasn’t quite sure of what he needed to.
And this was all happening while the ball was swinging around. In the first innings, England’s bowlers got 1.4 degrees of swing on an average. India’s bowler, in contrast, got around 0.9 degrees. In the second innings, Anderson and Co once again got the ball to do more thanks to the way they release the ball. An average of 1.9 degrees of swing meant the batsmen didn’t have it easy.
But Pujara was intent on moving the game forward. And he did it the right way. Sometimes when batsmen come out wanting to play aggressively, they often lose sight of their ultimate goal and throw their hands at everything. In short, it is a recipe for disaster.
Pujara, however, had much more control. This was an experienced pro at work, not getting carried away by a few fours. Rather, after a few shots, he seemed to calm himself down. He didn’t go looking, he still waited for the right ball to play his shots and that made the difference.
He got to his fifty off 91 balls — but to those watching it seemed considerably quicker because of the pace Pujara usually sets. Another measure of how positively he played was that he outscored Rohit Sharma in their 82-run stand for the second wicket. Pujara’s contribution was 44 while Rohit added 34. He didn’t just outscore Rohit — he also outscored Kohli in their 99-run stand for the third wicket, contributing 47 to Kohli’s 45.
Some of the shots played were very un-Pujara-like. The ramp shot played off a short ball from Ollie Robinson stands out. He just swayed out of the way and calmly helped it along. The stroke would have been a perfect fit in the IPL and it was executed perfectly.
All of this meant that England had to re-evaluate their plans for Pujara, who ended the day on 91 not out, and with the bowlers tiring, they didn’t quite have the time to do that on Day 3.
After the collapse on Day 1, India’s batsmen came out and played as well as they possibly could. Still, at the moment, England holds all the trump cards and the second new ball in the contest. India still trail by 139 runs and would probably need to at least add another 200 to that to stand a chance of drawing or winning the match.
Day 4 will initially be about keeping wickets in hands. Keep the England bowlers at bay and then, as they tire, there will perhaps be runs to be scored and miracles to be made. The knocks of Pujara and Kohli give India hope and even though it is the slimmest of hopes, it still counts for something.