Close to stumps on the third day of the first Test in Rajkot, the camera cut to Gautam Gambhir sitting on the dressing room balcony. He had been dismissed leg-before-wicket on the seventh ball of the morning, for 29 runs, and since then Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara had feasted on the bowling.
It was a case of what might have been for the southpaw, eager to cement his place in the playing eleven in this second coming. After all the hard work in the last session on day two, it was not to be.
The situation was akin to the first day of the Test here, as the ball does a little bit in the morning. Only, Stuart Broad created a chance on his own and did not rely on fielders to get the breakthrough.
Chris Woakes then bowled a fearsome spell. He tested both Vijay and Pujara outside the off-stump. In particular, he was harsh on the homeboy, hitting him twice on the helmet, the batsman taking his eyes off the ball on both occasions.
Pujara shows he won’t be cowed
“I didn’t mind getting hit. I was prepared for the body blows,” Pujara said after the day’s play. “I know the conditions here better than them, and it was just a matter of settling down. So I was patient enough to get through that passage of play.”
There is a new quality about Pujara’s batting nowadays though. Yes, he allows the bowler his way when on top, but then does not get bogged down for too long. Perhaps the criticism about strike rate has stung him hard. Maybe, respecting one bowler but attacking the others, is his way of breaking the shackles. And it has worked.
Sample this. By the time he first came up against Woakes, Pujara had already struck five boundaries and sped his way to 25 off 29 balls. Then came the short stuff, not really a barrage on this easy pitch. For the next 32 balls, there was only one boundary off his bat. Ben Stokes sprayed the ball a lot before lunch, and that is where Pujara opened up once again.
The all-rounder was smacked for 28 runs in four overs. In Test cricket a passage of play like this generally does not hold much value. In the context of how this third day progressed though, it was a vital spell.
England realised their folly in the manner Vijay and Pujara went after Stokes. Through most of the first session, they had been disciplined but did not get any rewards. As lunch approached, Alastair Cook gave his most mercurial weapon a go. It could have gone either way; a loose, aggressive stroke or even reverse swing coming into play.
Instead, he was spanked, and the visitors realised the need to keep things tight. Vijay and Pujara had scored at 4.9 per over in the ten overs before lunch. With both of them set, there was a real danger of India running away with the initiative. Stokes himself had provided such impetus to England’s innings yesterday, and the speed with which they scored 537 runs had left so much time in the game. It was imperative that they did not let things drift and the bowlers responded.
England employ the squeeze
Only 66 runs came in the 29 overs between lunch and tea. This, despite two settled batsmen, who were nearing their hundreds, at the crease. Vijay’s knock comes under scrutiny a bit here, for he ate up quite a few overs in this interim. But that is the job he is required to do and it is the batting mode he has operated in for a long time now.
To be fair though, he did hit four sixes off the English spinners. And at this juncture, the pitch comes for some scrutiny. For three days now, players from both sides have come at the end of play and hoped that there would be more assistance the next day. It did not happen on Friday either.
This third day was of particular importance in another aspect – whether India’ five batsmen would face up to the six-bowler attack in light of a 500-plus total. As it turned, just two of them were enough.
The 209-run partnership between Vijay and Pujara ensured that India only need 19 more runs to avoid the follow-on. And the hosts will be hoping that Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and company can make a few more runs than that and get closer to the English total, maybe even go further.
Check and mate
“If we can bat well tomorrow, and get 60-70 runs ahead, then we can put pressure on England on the fifth day. There is always some assistance in the Rajkot pitch on the final day,” Pujara said.
Ravindra Jadeja was of the same opinion earlier. They are the two players who know this ground the best. If they say so, it means that the onus is now on England to avoid an uncomfortable position on the final day.
On day four then, Cook’s team will have to work hard again, only this time they will need some more wickets to show for their efforts.
For, both Kohli and Rahane can score quickly and make up the difference in a shorter time period. The visitors would not want to be in a position of facing India’s trio of spinners on a breaking pitch on the final day, buried under a weight of runs.
Thus, with six sessions to go, this match is all about time. It is about how long India bat on day four, and then how long England need to bat to be safe.
If this were a chessboard, the visitors made their moves on the first two days. Through Pujara and Vijay, India plotted their own on day three.