India vs England: Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara stand tall but hosts still in a tricky situation
Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay put up a solid 209-run stand to put India right back in the game after the English batsmen dominated their bowlers to score 537.
The Indian fans seemed to have finally found their voice after having dealt with nearly two days of frustration in the opening Test against England.
If the bowling and fielding had been a little more than disappointing for the home side, the batsmen — specifically Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara — ensured the hosts were back in the game, finishing on 319/4 at the end of the third day.
Having lost the toss, Virat Kohli and co missed out on numerous catches and run-outs to let England sail away to a massive score of 537 (and allowed three of their batsmen post centuries in the process). India needed to post an equally strong reply with the bat to stay in the hunt for a win, or even salvage a draw.
There was hope after Vijay and southpaw opener Gautam Gambhir hit a few shots to the fence in the final session of Day 2 to guide India to 63 without losing a wicket. Gambhir, however, failed to hang around for long on Day 3, getting into a tangle while attempting to flick a half-volley from Stuart Broad, to be trapped lbw for 29.
Given how crucial each innings is for Gambhir due to the massive competition that he currently faces for the opener's slot, getting dismissed for a low score after a decent start would come as a big blow to his hopes. Unless he can turn things around in the second innings, Gambhir's stay in the Indian squad could be short-lived. India lost their first wicket with 68 on board, and the visitors sniffed an opportunity to gain the upper hand with less than two overs being bowled in the day till then.
Pujara, however, was determined to make Rajkot's debut Test a memorable one, not just for himself, but for his family present at the venue as well as for the local fans. The opening Test was scheduled at the SCA Stadium thanks to the Board of Control for Cricket in India's (BCCI) decision to take cricket's most prestigious format to Tier-II cities.
One batsman's brilliance would not have been enough to put the hosts in a position of strength, and Vijay turned out to be the perfect foil for Pujara in their 209-run stand for the second wicket mdash; the latest entry in their glorious history together as batting partners. The duo — who have been the most prolific Indian pair since 2010 with more than 2,000 runs from 32 innings at an average of 65 — had contrasting approaches to the English bowling attack to get to their respective centuries.
They weren't given too much room by the seamers early in their innings, with Chris Woakes unleashing a barrage of bouncers on Pujara and hitting him thrice on the helmet in the process. Pujara looked ruffled for a bit as a result of the treatment, and his family looked concerned after the blows. But that barely broke his concentration and he did well to not throw his wicket away, letting his bat do the talking thereafter.
While Vijay adopted a more conservative approach, using his feet only occasionally to whack the ball away towards the fence, Pujara kept scoring consistently with the help of neat drives and sweeps. The Rajkot lad faced criticism for a slow batting approach during India's tour of the Caribbean earlier this summer, and it is remarkable how he has come a long way in improving his strike rate. His knock of 124 runs of 206 balls was at the fastest strike rate among the Indian batsmen so far in this Test.
The Indian batsmen had their fair share of luck as well. Vijay, who returned to form in style after recording a couple of disappointing outings in the second and third Tests against New Zealand, was dropped on 66 after driving a Broad delivery on the up to young Haseeb Hameed at cover. Pujara was then trapped leg-before by Zafar Ansari 14 runs short of his ton, only for the temporarily-implemented Decision Review System (DRS) to come to his rescue.
Pujara had to wade through the nervous nineties for quite some time, and was stranded on 99 at the tea interval, before taking a quick single to get to the three-figure mark to extend what has been a brilliant recent run for him, with wife Puja screaming excitedly and father Arvind (who incidentally was watching him play live for the first time) having a hard time concealing a broad grin. Vijay, on the other hand, hit two consecutive boundaries off Broad before jumping in the air to celebrate his seventh Test ton.
While their partnership has set the foundation for a score that could match that of their opponents, the Indians' performance was dented by a spate of quick wickets in the final session. Pujara seemed to have lost concentration, and edged a Ben Stokes delivery to Alastair Cook in the slips.
After nearly getting caught at short-leg following a deflection off his boot off Moeen Ali's bowling, Vijay was surprised by extra-bounce in a Adil Rashid googly that was pitched on good length, and eventually got caught at short-leg by Hameed. The 19-year-old debutante also took the catch that dismissed nightwatchman Amit Mishra at the same position to give Ansari his first wicket of the match.
Skipper Virat Kohli was careful in his approach against the pacers at the start of his innings, collecting 26 runs off the 70 balls that he has faced so far, and will have to anchor the Indian innings on Day 4 along with Ajinkya Rahane and the rest of the batting order. Though the quick wickets in the final over of the day would have boosted England's hopes of finishing with a big lead, India still have enough firepower in them to emerge on top before Cook and Hameed walk out to bat for the visitors' second innings.
England trail 2-1 after their 157-run defeat at the Oval ahead of Friday's decider at Old Trafford but head coach Chris Silverwood has made only minor alterations to his squad.
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"We feel it's a good enough wicket to be able to chase that score. We certainly got the belief that we can go in and get to win, a lot of hard work still needs to be done," Woakes, who made a Test return after more than a year, said.