Have you ever gatecrashed a wedding, but because of your own self-doubts end up acting so nervously that you are escorted away from the food table just as the yummy lamb biryani had arrived? Indian cricket team would empathise with you. Thankfully for them, an outstanding Cheteshwar Pujara found two men in Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah (not a coincidence that they are bowlers who had set up the advantage in first place?) to not only deny England a lead but also ensure India were 27 runs ahead.
That Tintin like run of his – head down, body leaning forward as he dashes across, bat tailing him instead of Snowy, would stay in the memory from Friday. Hit twice on the helmet, a swelling on the head as a trophy, a bump on the wrists that required treatment, he carried on to complete a stunning turnaround to a dismal start to the summer that had started in Yorkshire. It spoke of his character, ambition, skill and temperament. Still, the collapse should rankle India. They could have been looking at a 125-run match-winning lead but now have to look up to the bowlers to do it all over again.
Pressure does strange things to you in Test cricket — like Rishabh Pant presenting an imposter who dead-batted as if caught in a trance, like Hardik Pandya whipping from outside off straight to the hands short mid-wicket, like R Ashwin choosing to reverse sweep before settling, like Ajinkya Rahane almost absentmindedly swiping across the line. If this was South Africa in an ODI game, we would have called it a choke. What do you call this? The hyper-ventilating ad-men would scream: ‘this is Test cricket’. It is but it’s difficult to forget the fact that Indian bowlers had to bowl out of their skins but the batsmen have squandered the advantage. If not for Cheteshwar Pujara’s wonderful hundred, India would have been in deeper strife.
It all started with Stokes’ shoes. And his big foot. Itsy-bitsy, teeny weeny white rubber just about peeped behind the crease when he trapped Rahane with an indipper. Else it would have been no ball and India probably wouldn’t have entered the panic station. Rahane should have done better than what he did. The plan against him from Stokes was pretty obvious: keep bowling outside off and then bring one back in. Simple but effective. One nipped in but Rahane wasn’t ready, and had to play all around the front pad. 161 for 4, and even then there were no real signs of any worry in the horizon.
It wasn’t as if England bowled out of their skin. It was self-induced of sorts by India. James Anderson couldn’t get the ball to swing consistently, Sam Curran couldn’t get it to bend back in, Ben Stokes wasn’t fully fit and had to be introduced rather late. Moeen Ali was pretty good and England had almost no option but to try reduce the scoring rate with disciplined lines and wait for an implosion.
The trouble started when Virat Kohli stretched himself so far across outside off to chase a delivery from Curran. For some reason, he had been doing this throughout the knock. Perhaps it was the fact there wasn’t much movement on offer that he felt he could thread through the off side. Couple of edges flew through gully and this time, he dragged himself towards the off and tried to defend. Edge and gone.
Pant, the man who hit his second ball in Test cricket for a six, chose to dead bat away. Against his nature. Why, we perhaps would never know. England had sensed the moment was turning and started to squeeze in the pressure with deliveries in the zone outside off. Pant kept leaving them.
The pressure kept building. And then, in the last over before tea, it was a half-volley from Moeen but Pant by then had dragged himself into a spot of no return and somehow managed not to get any wood on leather. 181 for 5 and it was now clear that we had a game on. Moeen started to amp up his game, punctuating his off-breaks with some wonderful straighter ones that Ashwin began to feel a bit itchy. One went past his off stump, he stabbed out another just short of silly point and decided to go for the reverse. Mistake, 195 for 7. He is the kind of character who would probably come out and play the reverse sweep next innings and raise an eyebrow at the world to suggest, ‘You talking to me?!”
In all this mayhem, Pujara was outstanding in his mental discipline and craft. We have already recorded in these pages what he has been upto, so that he could change his batting fortunes around. Stand up taller at the stance, tuck in that elbow so as not to push out at deliveries – and he was in total control out there. He ran hard, he kept the score ticking over, cut hard and rarely let anything loose go by.
You know he is in his elements when the cut shot appears. That rasping cut which reminds one of Dilp Vengsarkar’s. Whenever Anderson or any seamer dropped short, Pujara let the ball come to him, stood up on his toes, loosened his wrists and flayed it. Batsmen can usually go all arms in that shot but Pujara makes it almost wristy. Then a quick look at his gloves as it grips the bat, head down, and back to focussing on the next ball.
A few years ago, when he had finally broken through into the Test team after years of hard work, he had told this correspondent about the frustrations: “In Tests, there is no use if you are over-aggressive. I am not saying you have to be cautious all the time, but that you have to put a price on your wicket. There is no use hitting two sixes and getting out. One can get found out on overseas tours in tough conditions. People have realised that.”
They have realised it but they keep doubting him. Even now. Intent and all that jazz. Perhaps, its something he has to live with. The doubters will doubt; Pujara does what he does. In Southampton, with Test series hanging in balance, he did what he could and has handed the baton back to the bowlers.