Half Monty, all Pujara

SP
Its arrival had seemed imminent ever since Monty Panesar spun a newish ball past the bats of Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag within the first one-and-a-half hours of the day. The signature of a rank turner. A spinner's delivery pitching on a length and exploding off the surface with a puff of dust.

And it reared its ugly head just when Cheteshwar Pujara looked like he had gotten the better of the tricky wicket and the English spinners. The first ball 43rd over of the Indian innings —Panesar's 19th on the trot. Luckily for India's No.3, the ball took the shoulder of his bat but fell harmlessly a few inches away from the point fielder. Pujara smiled wryly. So did Panesar.

After incessant demands for a pitch that would turn from the early going, Mahendra Singh Dhoni had finally gotten his way at the Wankhede Stadium.

It was the hosts, however, who had to contend with the upshot of their skipper's provocation. And with the score reading, 121/5, they weren't really coping too well with it.

Having survived the mini-scare, Pujara, unruffled, defended four of the other five deliveries in Panesar's maiden over resolutely, three while stretching his front-foot right out, and once off the back-foot. The sixth, slower in the air, was driven firmly towards the cover region.

In the space of six balls, Pujara had provided a master-class on how to contend with the challenges of a spinner's track in the subcontinent. A mixture of soft hands, decisive footwork, a straight bat, and delaying the shot till the last moment. And the visitors got a good look of the 24-year-old right-hander's repertoire on the opening day of the second Test as he continued his amazing undefeated run—that has lasted over 15 hours already in this series.

Pujara notched up his second century in the series, as India finished with 266/6; a significant recovery after Panesar had left them reeling. There was also support from skipper Dhoni and Ravichandran Ashwin, who remained unbeaten on 60, as they too displayed their own unique methods of tackling prodigious spin.

Trouble ahead

There was no dearth of threats to overcome though for Pujara. Brought onto bowl in as early as the seventh over of the innings, Panesar looked to have regained his vintage form, getting drift in the air and turn off the wicket. He also kept altering his line cleverly from middle-and-leg to off-stump, ensuring that he was in the running for all styles of dismissals.

While he did get the better of the big names in the Indian line-up, Pujara proved to be an immovable rock.

Panesar's length balls, he kept out with dead defensive strokes. Pujara in fact employed a forceful shot only when Panesar either pitched it too full or gave him width.

And it wasn't surprising to see that only three of his 39 runs off him on Friday came in the V down the ground. He did hit three boundaries off Panesar, who bowled 22 consecutive overs. The first was a full-pitched delivery driven through the covers, followed by a full-toss being whipped through mid-wicket—that brought up his half-century—and a fearsome cut-shot.

Compared to Panesar, who averaged around 92 kmph with his speed, Graeme Swann was slightly slower in the air, and that meant Pujara could step down the wicket and smother the spin. And he did at least on a dozen occasions. Against Swann, he also refused to play against the spin—another lesson—preferring to pick up singles with tucks and flicks on the on-side.

Over all, Pujara stretched on to his front-foot for close to 75 per cent of the 142 deliveries of spin he faced at Wankhede. On a turning wicket there are no guarantees. Playing with the bat and pad close to each other can be counterproductive on pitches with turn and bounce. And Pujara too had a few anxious moments, especially against Swann. But he never let it bother him.

Dhoni handled the spin in his own audacious fashion, often contorting his body and feet oddly either while stifling the spin or while getting the ball away for runs. He too stuck to playing with the spin against Panesar but was harsh on anything short. His half-century stand with Pujara brought India back into the game. It was the unbeaten 97-run partnership between Pujara and Ashwin that really handed India the momentum.

Feet movement

Incidentally, Ashwin of all batsmen seemed to have the least difficulty in tackling England's spin inquest. He used his feet more often than his more established colleagues, while his longer reach also proved a great help in fending it. Ashwin also presented the full-face of the bat against both spinners throughout his knock.

It wasn't quite the pitch that could be blamed for the top-order's failure though. While Tendulkar and Sehwag were done in by Panesar's drift, they were looking to play against the turn. Virat Kohli, meanwhile, fell while playing away from his body.

In contrast to Pujara's masterclass, these were examples of how not to play on a turning track.

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