MUMBAI – As Monty Panesar made a triumphant Test match return something nagged away at England’s sense of well-being. That something was Cheteshwar Pujaraand by the close of an absorbing first day in Mumbai even Panesar had to play second best to India’s new batting sensation.
Pujara has now batted for more than 15 hours without England discovering how to dismiss him, following his unbeaten double century in Ahmedabad with another hundred – and the promise of more to come – at Wankhede Stadium as he countered a turning pitch with another innings of poise and certainty.
The first new ball unveiled a story of Pujara’s watchfulness as Panesar made a jubilant return with four wickets and half India’s side were dismissed for 119. But the second new ball suggested that the batsman had emerged the stronger when to chants of Pu-ja-ra, Pu-ja-ra, he moved off 99 by pulling James Anderson’s second delivery resoundingly through square leg. It is only the second Test of a four-Test series but there is a sense in Indian cricket of a changing order.
Pujara’s tranquil progress has echoed throughout the early stages of this series. There was some bounce to excite England’s pace bowlers and predictably he was tested with the short ball, but he emerged comfortably enough to suggest he will be an India batsman who can also prosper overseas. An unbroken stand of 97 with R Ashwin, whose unbeaten 60 took only 84 balls, completed India’s escape.
Anderson was inches away from having Pujara caught at point by Nick Compton, plunging forward, on 17, and he also survived a hard chance to Anderson at gully when 60, this time off Panesar. His most prolonged discomfort came on 94 when England appealed, legitimately enough, for a catch off Alastair Cook’s toe at short leg but the umpires called for TV evidence which showed that the ball had also struck the ground.
MS Dhoni unashamedly wants Indian Test pitches to turn from the outset and the captain got just what he wanted – an old Wankhede pitch, used only three weeks ago, ragging and bouncing. It was to Indian cricket what a blatantly green seamer at Trent Bridge might be in England, a deliberate attempt to take the opposition out of their comfort zone.
“If it does not turn, I can come and criticise again,” Dhoni had chirped prior to the game as he warned that he did not expect the sort of slog faced by India’s spinners in Ahmedabad. There will be no angry exchanges with the groundsman, no disappointed email to the BCCI.
But if Dhoni would have found this dry, threadbare surface, with the ball going through the top on the first afternoon, much to his liking, England’s spinners were uplifted by the surface, with Panesar, who, after being controversially omitted from England’s Test side in Ahmedabad, ending the day with 4 for 91 in 34 overs. It was quite a collection, with Virender Sehwag, in his 100th Test, and Sachin Tendulkar bowled in successive overs.
It is rare to see Panesar and Graeme Swann in tandem and the contrast was an engrossing one: Panesar, bowling his left-arm spin with a deliberative air, as if any lapse in accuracy would startle him; Swann, forever jack the lad behind the dark glasses, his own concentration never quite overcoming the suspicion that he had just emerged from a crafty cigarette behind the bike sheds.
Swann played his part, bowling Yuvraj Singh for a second-ball duck by coming wide of the crease and straightening one, but it was Panesar’s return that captured the attention. He began nervously, conceding two boundaries in his first over and initially overpitched, but soon found a pace and control that allowed him to settle.
If the removal of Sehwag was commonplace, a full delivery which bowled him off his pads as he flicked lazily to leg, his dismissal of Tendulkar was a gem, turn and bounce to strike his off stump, ensuring that there would be no rush into Churchgate Station on the Mumbai trains as the day progressed. Pujara’s legside steers have yet to bring the worshippers flocking.
Sehwag had been in contented mood before the start, fielding congratulations on reaching his milestone, but his innings – 30 from 43 balls – never convinced. Twice in one over, Anderson almost defeated two uncertain half-bat pushes, Sehwag first inside-edging past leg stump and then beating second slip off the outside edge. Panesar removed him at the start of his fifth over, moving his short leg to gully and perhaps benefiting as Sehwag sensed the ball fired in at his pads represented easy pickings on the legside.
Panesar’s third wicket was that of Virat Kohli. By mid-afternoon, the pitch was already turning, and with reasonable pace. A puff of dust as the ball broke through the surface was a forewarning for Kohli that his drive to short extra cover was about to end in disaster. Anderson’s inswing had removed Gautam Gambhir second ball of the day. Anderson had a half-decent day; Stuart Broad did nothing to allay doubts about his worth on Indian pitches.
After their nine-wicket defeat in Ahmedabad, England had at least indicated that another lost toss would not automatically heap more misery upon them. They have never lost more than eight Tests in a calendar year, but in 2012 they have already lost seven and their shortcomings in Asia have been largely responsible.
For a side which began the year ranked as the No. 1 Test side in the world, it is a rapid reversal. With three Tests remaining in the series, their reputation is on the line. At least by selecting Panesar the balance of their side possessed some logic rather than the Englishman Abroad stereotype they had relied on in Motera, but the last hour did not go well for them. They need to find a way to break Pujara’s tread.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.