Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. MS Dhoni wanted a pitch that bounced and turned from the first day and that’s what he got at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
In the North Stand, the North Stand gang, a group of about 50 cricket fans between the ages of 18 and 37 that have come together over the last three years and watch every international game in Mumbai, consoled themselves with the thought that England would struggle even more than India on this surface as the home side slid to 119 for 5. But by the end of the day the stand was rocking to chants of Pu-ja-ra, Pu-ja-ra as India’s No 3 continued to confound England and led India’s recovery to 266 for 6.
The day began with Virender Sehwag walking out to bat in his 100th Test. He was greeted by the sounds of frenzied drumming and loud cheers of Viru! Viru! The loss of Gautam Gambhir in the first over stilled the crowd but when Sehwag got off the mark with a four through the covers, it appeared it would be business as usual. The introduction of Monty Panesar in the fifth over would change all that. Sehwag heaved Panesar to the mid-wicket boundary first ball and Pujara crashed him through extra-cover in the same over, but Panesar never lost his composure. Five overs later he had Sehwag playing around a full delivery that ricocheted off the batsman’s pads and onto the stumps.
The North Stand gang initially thought Sehwag had had a narrow escape but then they spotted the stump lying on the ground and realised Sehwag was actually headed back to the pavilion. Groans immediately followed but they quickly turned to cheers as Mumbai’s favourite son walked out to bat. Shouts of Sach-in, Sach-in echoed around the stadium. The gang started their own chant too: Cricket ka king kaun (who is cricket’s king)? Sa-chin! Sa-chin! It was almost as if Sehwag had never been.
Two overs later, however, the gang was shocked into silence as Panesar played spoiler once again. This time he got one to turn and bounce enough to evade the edge of Tendulkar’s bat and hit the top of off. Panesar took off on his now trademark celebratory run to nowhere but the North Stand took on the feeling of a morgue. “Sachin is our God”, Ashutosh Shirke,told Firstpost when the day began. Now they had been robbed of their idol. At 60 for 3, India were in trouble too and the gang decided to stop chanting as both players they had cheered were out. “We are a superstitious bunch,” Shirke said.
At the other end Pujara continued to suggest that he is the changing face of Indian Test cricket as he mixed a solid forward defence with attacking strokes on both sides of the wicket. Untroubled by the short ball early on, he responded to Tendulkar’s wicket by gliding a bouncer from Stuart Broad over the slips before clipping a half-volley through mid-wicket for four more.
Virat Kohli kept Pujara company in a 58-run stand before becoming Panesar’s third victim and that bought Yuvraj Singh to the crease. The stadium, now roughly half full, roared to life once again. Their joy would be short lived once again though, as Graeme Swann ripped one past Yuvraj’s bat second ball.
Enter the captain, MS Dhoni, but the gang was not expecting much. His penchant for reaching for the ball and going hard at it seemed at odds with the pitch, which was already showing signs of wear and tear. That he lasted until tea, having made 24, had the gang feeling satisfied with his effort already. One went so far as to say he expected Dhoni to make no more than 9 or 10.
Dhoni’s dismissal after tea, however, was once again met with disapproving looks and talk of anything over 200 being a good first-innings score, down from 300 about two hours earlier. When Ashwin, who has a Test century to his name, began to middle the ball consistently, the gang’s mood began to change. Happy comments about the excellent sound of bat on ball were interspersed with advice for Ashwin to stop prancing down the wicket to Swann.
The one heart-in-mouth moment came when Pujara appeared to have been caught off Alastair Cook’s toe at short leg. When the third umpire gave him not out, the group greeted the decision with high fives and dancing in the stands. They nervously went through the nineties with Pujara, urging him on with every run. When he finally reached his hundred with a dismissive pull of James Anderson, a giant India flag was unveiled amid a standing ovation and delirious shouting of Pujara’s name. “Brilliant”, said Tanmay Shah, when asked to describe what he thought of Pujara. “And artistic.”
All that was left was for Ashwin to reach his half-century, which came in a rush as he struck Anderson for three fours in one over. “Come on, Jimmy”, Shah shouted. “Bowl another boundary ball.” The gang did pause to applaud Panesar after his last over of the day for a job well done.
They will be back again tomorrow; confident that with India already past 250, England will have a hard time of it on a wicket that is so dry, it might not hold together for all five days. “The match could be over by Sunday,” Shirke said.