Among the seven fifties Cheteshwar Pujara has scored at home till date, this was possibly the scratchiest. He was hit on the helmet, sobered by a Jeetan Patel delivery that hit him on the stomach, survived a close leg-before appeal off Mitchell Santner and was almost dismissed had BJ Watling not dived the other way to his edge off Patel.
The redeeming quality of Pujara’s batting though was his ability to leave deliveries and come down the track to flick spinners through the on-side.
When he was sure about his stride, Pujara didn’t mind playing freely. Like the consecutive boundaries off Matt Henry in the sixth over --- first through square-leg followed by a straighter one through mid-off. Then there was an exquisite square drive to an over-pitched delivery from Neil Wagner.
Pujara was probably at his best mentally when he scored a flurry of boundaries that took him from 68 to 84 in no time. Otherwise, he was happy doing the clichéd job of blocking and leaving deliveries. So predictable was his defence that he was stuck on 46 for 30 deliveries before a boundary through backward point gave him his ninth career fifty.
It didn’t affect India’s position because of Ajinkya Rahane. Knowing there would be periods when Pujara would become ultra-defensive, Rahane used the time to milk runs from the other end. It didn’t matter if they came through singles, twos or boundaries hit by Rahane --- India chugged along even when Pujara’s strike rate hovered around the 30-mark. That was the brilliance of the only solid partnership India had all day.
Like Pujara, Rahane too didn’t have an easy start. But a good defensive technique helped him out of trouble. “If you have confidence in your defence on a turning wicket then no one can dismiss you. That was what we did in the first and second sessions,” said Rahane after the close of the first day’s play.
As long as the two were at the crease, India looked good to reach at least 250. Only in the post-tea session did both Pujara and Rahane try to accelerate.
“We felt the third session was opportunity for us to score. The ball was old, bowlers were tired. So we thought if we could improve our run rate we could create some pressure,” said Rahane.
The plan worked fine. Till the time Pujara was dismissed by Wagner, the duo had scored 51 runs in 66 balls. Wagner bore the brunt of that counter-attack by conceding two boundaries to each of them. But that confidence stemmed from sorting out the spinners.
“We were trying to disturb their line and length with our footwork against spinners. Playing them on the back-foot was easier,” said Rahane.
The partnership though didn’t reach the conclusion it should have. “Me and Pujara, we will take the blame because we were set. If one of us made a century, our position would have been different,” said Rahane.
India would be relieved though. If not for the partnership, they would have had nothing to show on the first day.