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Friday, September 17, 2021

2nd Test, Day 4: Batt(l)ing duo leaves job unfinished

Pujara & Rahane show plenty of resolve but England hold upper hand with one day remaining.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty |
Updated: August 16, 2021 1:04:33 pm
England's Mark Wood celebrates a wicket during the first Test against India. (File)

It could have been a tale of stirring resolve, of never-say-die attitude from two batsmen who had been walking a tightrope and looking over their shoulders. But Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane left the job half-done and as stumps were drawn at Lord’s on Day Four, England, sans Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Stuart Broad, found themselves in a strong position.

When bad light stopped play, as Joe Root decided to bring on his seamers, India were 181/6 in their second innings, just 154 runs ahead of England. The hosts will bat fourth on a fifth-day pitch all right, but the visitors don’t have Ravichandran Ashwin.

The 100-run partnership between Pujara and Rahane for the fourth wicket, during which they showed plenty of grit, was keeping India in the contest after Rohit Sharma was out-egoed and Virat Kohli out-thought by their opponents. But the Pujara-Rahane combo didn’t meet the desired objective of making things safe for their team. They departed in quick succession to open the game for England. On the precipice, Rishabh Pant remains India’s tenuous link to proper batting.

Longer innings from Pujara and Rahane could have made things different. For the whole of the second session and a good portion of the third, they stood firm. Their batting wasn’t easy on the eye. But at 55/3 and the world’s longest batting tail to come, fighting for survival became the key. In the middle were two batsmen who had been going through a lean patch during the ongoing tour, starting from the World Test Championship final.

One false step from Pujara and Rahane, and Suryakumar Yadav and/or Hanuma Vihari were waiting in the wings. After them, India were left with only Pant and Ravindra Jadeja to rely upon. Jadeja didn’t last long on Sunday, cleaned up by a fine delivery from Moeen Ali towards the fag end of the day.

As much as playing for their country, Pujara and Rahane were playing for themselves also. Against them was a disciplined England bowling, spearheaded by James Anderson. The duo defied the odds for a long period. After tea, when they saw off Anderson’s spell, it felt like safety was achievable. But Mark Wood came up with a snorter, the ball kicked off a length, hit Pujara’s gloves to Root at second slip.

Closing the face of the bat a little, while playing forward against the seamers, has been Pujara’s problem in this series. He is nicking the away-goers as a result. But on Sunday, he showed better judgment outside off-stump before weathering a bodyline attack from Wood post-lunch. The fast bowler targeted Pujara’s body with a short square-leg, short backward square, a silly mid-off and a fly slip in place. But India’s No. 3 had successfully negotiated more hostile bowling in Australia last winter. He wasn’t perturbed.

Playing for his spot

Rahane’s position was seemingly even more vulnerable. In 2018, he was dropped for the first two Tests in South Africa despite being the team’s vice-captain and the most reliable overseas batsman at the time. He had little margin for error.

The first delivery he faced, in the wake of Kohli’s dismissal, was a friendly full-toss from Sam Curran, which Rahane failed to put away. A few times, he couldn’t capitalise on half-volleys. He has had his struggles against off-spinners over a period of time. But on Sunday, Rahane was judging Moeen’s length well, although a dropped catch by Jonny Bairstow at point gave him a reprieve on 31. India were 119/3 then. Ironically, his dismissal was down to a misjudgement against the off-spinner, as he played away from his body and was caught behind.

Test cricket is not a three-hour evening show and a celebration of 100m sixes. It’s the ultimate test of a cricketer’s skill and character. So, it didn’t matter that Pujara took 35 balls to get off the mark or he and Rahane consumed 175 balls to add 50 runs, and accounted for 296 deliveries to stitch a 100-run partnership. They were trying to take India to safety and were under no obligation to wow the audience. After Rahane’s 61 and Pujara’s 45, they will live to fight another day, but both understandably walked back to the pavilion disappointed.

Earlier in the day, England successfully played on Rohit’s ego. Wood kept three men back on the hook and challenged the Indian opener with bouncers. Rohit hooked one for a six but found Ali at deep square-leg three balls later. The first one was near his right shoulder and the second ball closer to his left. Rohit backed himself to clear the short leg-side boundary, but couldn’t middle it.

Kohli was out-thought by Curran, who switched to over the wicket – partially due to a warning from umpire Michael Gough for running on to the danger area – and broke the sequence of inswingers by moving one away. The India captain was set up to play in-swing and poked at the widish delivery to the wicketkeeper. His tale of batting woe continues.

Brief scores: India 364 & 181/6 (Rahane 61, Pujara 45; Wood 3/40) lead England 391 by 154 runs

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