Cheteshwar Pujara's punch keeps India in the Headingley Test

Updated on Aug 27, 2021 11:45 PM IST

Pujara was the story of the day, his uncharacteristically quick start startling England. Once scoring at almost a run a ball, Pujara eased into his role once he had a hang of England’s bowling.

India captain Virat Kohl (R) and Cheteshwar Pujara celebrate at the end of play on the third day of third Test(AP)
India captain Virat Kohl (R) and Cheteshwar Pujara celebrate at the end of play on the third day of third Test(AP)
By, Kolkata

Cheteshwar Pujara gives poker face a rap on its knuckles. He is unconsciously unobtrusive, an antithesis of a hyper-expressive India team that chortles at every beaten edge or wicket. At the nets or inside the dressing room, he is Puji, getting along with everyone with just a courteous smile. Out in the middle, as the camera pans on him under the lights on an overcast day, you can sense the steel in Pujara’s veins. His intent questioned, his strike rate ridiculed every time the middle-order is under the scanner, Pujara falls back on his bat to pick his battles when the odds are stacked against him.

James Anderson, the greatest seamer of our times, has multiple cracks at him. Craig Overton tries several lengths as it gets unusually cold at Headingley, the Yorkshire ground. But Pujara presents the full face of his bat every time, meeting the ball under his eyes, thwarting England, almost exhorting them to keep pushing his limits. This match is far from over though India are still 139 runs behind England, but the third day of this Test at Leeds will go down as one where resistance found near-perfect depiction in Pujara after Rohit Sharma. Their vigilant knocks set up the visitors, pushing them to keep fighting.

Virat Kohli too is slowly powering up to full potential, tempering Pujara’s defiance with waterproof defence and building his innings one block, one forward defence at a time. On a day it was all about not caving in against England at a venue where spectators have the reputation of ganging up on the visitors, India did exactly what was required to keep the series in balance.

England have still not lost the edge and India are still not out of it. With two days still to go, England don’t have a clear upper hand despite a commanding first-innings lead. That is what a wicket-less session does to the opposition after three of the top four make a point. KL Rahul didn’t get to lunch unbeaten after Jonny Bairstow’s sensational one-handed catch in the slips but India were unruffled. Saved by the bell once when Joe Root was literally a second late in reviewing an lbw call, Sharma applied himself so well that his white-ball exploits seem to be from a different time and era.

With a high backlift, Sharma still had time to play late and was a picture of concentration—leaving, blocking, standing out of the crease and meeting the ball before it could seam too much, leaving England exasperated.

The key to India’s slow but sure progress was surviving James Anderson’s early onslaught. A boundary—Sharma effortlessly caressing a full outswinger through covers—was possibly the only bad ball in a probing first spell where he just concentrated on getting the ball to move away from Rahul and Sharma. Anderson returned 5-2-8-0 in that first spell but India knew the preliminary target had been met. Two more spells and Anderson had started straying on to the pads. This is the thing about Anderson—the more he is played out the more he is defanged over the course of the match.

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Historically, Anderson is most effective in the earlier half of Tests at home, taking 101 and 144 wickets in the first two innings. The next two innings, his career haul slips to 96 and 58 wickets. You can actually feel it with Anderson often straying down the leg and over pitching. Kohli gladly went after him. But the shot of the day was Pujara whipping a wobbled seam delivery off his pads.

You almost feel for Sharma, still waiting for his first overseas century despite putting in every ounce of his experience into making his wicket count. But a slight lapse in concentration meant Ollie Robinson could pin him with a straight one. Sharma was loading up to whip him across the line but missed it, one of the rare occasions he didn’t get bat to ball. But his long vigil allowed Kohli an easy induction, the India captain quickly settling into a rhythm after Robinson caught him once on the pads with the scrambled seam. But an easy boundary off the pads to Anderson helped settle the nerves. And once he had his eye in, Kohli had no problem stealing singles and keeping England on their toes.

But Pujara was the story of the day, his uncharacteristically quick start startling England. Once scoring at almost a run a ball, Pujara eased into his role once he had a hang of England’s bowling. Two boundaries off Anderson—a half volley whipped off the pads and a leg glance— took the pressure off, but Pujara surprised in continuing to attack, first Overton and then the hapless Sam Curran, who has not yet learnt to keep off the pads.

Joe Root tried his luck as well when the umpires were contemplating sending the players off the field. India did well to keep their enthusiasm in check. The deficit is still large. And there is plenty of drama left, given England will get to use the new ball first up in the morning session on Day 4. They know it will not be a cakewalk. India’s middle-order has woken up to its task. Sharma has done his job. Pujara and Kohli are still at it. Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant are yet to come. This Test still isn't over.

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    Somshuvra Laha is a sports journalist with over 11 years' experience writing on cricket, football and other sports. He has covered the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup, the 2016 ICC World Twenty20, cricket tours of South Africa, West Indies and Bangladesh and the 2010 Commonwealth Games for Hindustan Times.

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