Spirited Pujara rescues India

Spirited Pujara rescues India

IN REGAL TOUCH: Cheteshwar Pujara en route his unbeaten 132 against England in Southampton on Friday. AFP

Cheteshwar Pujara scored a defiant century in testing conditions to rescue India out of the damage caused by the dreadful Moeen Ali-Aegeas Bowl combo as the fourth Test against England lay perfectly in the balance here on Friday.

Pujara, running out of partners after Ali (5/63) ran through the Indian middle-order with a sizzling spell of 10-0-41-5 to bring back memories of the 2014 Test when the off-spinner bagged 6/67 in the second innings to fashion England’s emphatic win, batted brilliantly with tail-enders Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah to hammer his first century — 132 not out (257b, 16x4) — at Old Blighty and take his side to 273 all out.

The 30-year-old Pujara, often chastised for batting slow and sometimes made the scapegoat to include attack-minded batsmen in the line-up, showed his value with an innings of great character and discipline that other top-order batsmen failed to do so despite getting off to promising starts.

He initially bided his time when pacers Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Sam Curran dished out probing stuff. India had lost opener KL Rahul in the third over of the day and the England pacers, first the Broad-Anderson combine and then the Broad-Curran pair tested and teased both Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan.

Both the batsmen embraced extreme caution at that stage, stonewalling everything England threw at them. But just when Dhawan seemed to have done all the hard work, he threw it all away, falling for the out-swing trap.

Pujara then joined forces with Virat Kohli and the Indian skipper’s typically busy start rubbed some confidence into him. He started to play his shots, the risky flash over the slips and some powerful cover drives as the duo brought about the half-century partnership just at the stroke of lunch. Pujara started to build his innings once again after resumption, oblivious to the speed at which Kolhi, who became the fifth Indian to go past 6,000 Test runs in his innings of 46, was going on from the other end. Pujara relied on his skill sets — guts, gumption, patience and concentration. He played the big shots only when the ball was in his zone, happy to present a dead bat otherwise.

The different approaches by Pujara and Kohli actually worked for India and the duo looked like batting England out. Just then India ceded control back to England after Kohli played a rare rash shot and Ajinkya Rahane lasted just 14 balls.

From 161/4 they collapsed to 195/8 with Ali picking up all the five wickets with his tricky off-spin which Indians failed to read once again. Pujara, who was hit on the front of the helmet by a Ben Stokes ball, was on 78 when the eighth wicket fell and it seemed like he may miss out on reaching the coveted three-figure mark in England — this time not entirely his fault.

Pujara didn’t lose cool at that stage too. He initially chose to take the majority of the strike and then gave Ishant the confidence. Ishant lent Pujara good company but perished when the Saurashtra man was on 96. The nerves in the Indian dressing room grew but a composed Pujara brought up his 15th Test hundred with a lofted shot.

Such was his determination, Pujara refused to settle for a century as he stitched a 46-run partnership with Jasprit Bumrah. That stand gave India a slight lead of 27 runs which could be very crucial.