Cheteshwar Pujara made a grand comeback after eight months, scoring an invaluable century to pull India out of serious trouble on the second day of the deciding third Test against Sri Lanka on Saturday.
Pujara, 27, struck his seventh Test hundred after being thrown a lifeline as opener following injuries to Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, holding firm at one end as batsmen at the other succumbed to outstanding seam bowling by Dhammika Prasad on a helpful Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground pitch.
Pujara (135 not out), who registered the highest score by an India batsman in this series, added a vital 104 runs for the eighth wicket with Amit Mishra (59), who scored his third Test fifty, to lift India after they were reeling at 180 for seven.
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Dropped after the Melbourne Test in December having failed to convert a series of starts into big scores, he was on the sidelines as the team faced debate over Rohit Sharma’s place in the eleven. Pujara showed his class as he built his innings patiently while other top-order batsmen wobbled against Prasad. He steadily picked up pace to reach his century just before tea.
Pujara’s first century since he made 153 in the Johannesburg Test in December, 2013 – he managed just three fifties in 22 innings in 11 away Tests after that to be dropped in Australia --- was one of sheer grit and focus on an unusually seam-friendly pitch. His 277-ball knock contained 12 fours.
His success and Sharma’s failure to tackle the conditions will again throw up a debate, although the next series, against South Africa, is at home. India, who were 50 for two after rain ended play on Thursday midway through the morning session, were down to 119/4 at lunch.
Prasad, who had removed opener KL Rahul with his second delivery, removed Sharma (26) and new batsman Stuart Binny (0) either side of lunch to be on a hat-trick before having Ravichandran Ashwin caught behind. He bowled his heart out, giving little away to help the hosts work for every run. He took four for 83.
Skipper Virat Kohli (18) was the first to succumb against seam bowling on Day Two. He was dropped off Nuwan Pradeep on eight overnight, and nicked Prasad after adding one run but the ball fell short of slip. But skipper Angelo Mathews brought himself on and struck third ball, Kohli paying the price for pushing away from the body to be caught behind.
Pujara revived the innings with a 55-run fourth-wicket partnership with Sharma until Prasad drew the nick to have him caught by Upul Tharanga at first slip.
Debutant Naman Ojha (21) and Mishra then supported Pujara. Sri Lanka won the first Test by 63 runs and India squared the series with a 278-run victory in the second Test.