Mumbai: Cheteshwar Pujara’s batting has remained a mystery for England in this series. “Did you manage to dismiss Pujara in domestic cricket?,” a despondent English scribe queried Ravichandran Ashwin at the media conference.
“Yes, quite a few times,” replied the off-spinner.
“How?” questioned the journalist. “LBW…” quipped Ashwin, before enjoying a hearty laugh.
Having out-batted them in the opening Test with unbeaten knocks of 206 and 41, the Saurashtra batsman’s unbroken 97-run partnership with Ashwin threatened to take the game away from England’s grasp on Friday.
England had India in the dumps at 119 for five, courtesy back in favour Monty Panesar’s four for 91, but by close they had recovered to reach 266 for six, a total that is sure to give them hope in their quest for a 2-0 lead in the series.
Pujara, having spent 361 minutes, remained unconquered on 114 while Ashwin was providing support with a well-made 60.
The Wankhede pitch will continue to aid the spinners, making batting even more difficult in the coming days. If this is what Mahendra Singh Dhoni had wished for, his demands have certainly been met with.
There was sharp turn and bounce on Day I itself and unless there’s an Alastair Cook-like resistance from someone in their ranks, England are bound to face to face the music here too.
The England captain did their cause no good by losing the toss for the second time in this series. But India’s beginning was hardly encouraging as they lost Gautam Gambhir to the second ball of the day.
In a dramatic first over, Gambhir despatched James Anderson’s loosener through square leg, and on the next ball, the hint of inswing was enough to trap the opener leg before.
Pujara then negotiated one that rose throat-height forcing the batsman to take evasive action in a hurry.
Panesar was on as early as the seventh over but Sehwag and Pujara made the most of his erratic first over.
Settling into a line and varying the pace and trajectory, he kept the batsmen guessing with his drift and turn.
Add to it the bounce on the wicket and the left-arm spinner was menacing.
‘Century’-maker Virender Sehwag seemed keen to make this Test memorable with a cautious start. But after battling 73 minutes for his 30, he ran out of patience, the ball rolling off his pad onto the stumps when attempting a flick.
In between, a couple of Sehwag’s inside edges went tantalisingly past the stumps on way to the boundary.
Panesar had tasted success and there was no stopping him. Sachin Tendulkar would wish to forget his Friday’s dismissal, that too on his home turf, after having been left clueless by one that spun across the face of his bat.
A classic delivery that beat The Master in flight in his forward defence, pitched on the leg and turned to hit off stump. The 10-minute vigil produced only eight runs.
An ecstatic Panesar’s joy knew no bounds. Pumping his clenched fist and thumping his chest, he had announced his ‘comeback’.
Pujara and Virat Kohli tried to repair the innings with a 58-run partnership until the former ran into T20 mode to surrender his wicket.
To make it worse, Yuvraj Singh then missed the line of an innocuous delivery to gift Graeme Swann his first wicket.
Such was Panesar’s dominance that Cook used him for 23 overs in his first spell (23-5-62-3) that lasted 200 minutes.
Three more spells produced one more wicket in Dhoni (29), but nothing shook Pujara’s resolve.
Adept at playing long innings, he batted with authority and showed immense patience and concentration. His only blemish was on 60 when Anderson, at gully, failed to grasp as sharp catch off Panesar.
England believed they had Pujara caught at mid wicket off Swann on 94, but referrals proved that the ball had bounced off the ground.
Pujara was flamboyant at the outset. Perhaps it had got something to do with his confidence.
An upper cut to a Stuart Broad short delivery was followed by a clip off the pads for another boundary. But then he adjusted himself according to the demands of the situation.
Dhoni certainly went one-up in the mind games with the inclusion of three spinners, giving Harbhajan Singh his 99th cap.
The thought of having to deal their fourth innings on a turning wicket coupled with the memories of Ahmedabad are sure to haunt the visitors. The heat will be on England’s under-performing stars.
England batsmen have to show the determination, self-belief and will power, they have to show that they can cope with the turning ball.
Otherwise, another failure of catastrophic proportions awaits them.