Virender Sehwag isn’t an easy man to impress. He didn’t have much praise for the Motera pitch at the end of the first day. "The bounce isn’t good and it will be hard to score runs as the game progresses," he said, putting his century in perspective as if there was a need to do so. This despite a first Test century in two years, so one can safely assume as much for the rest of the players too, all barring two.
When asked about the recently re-laid pitch at Ahmedabad, both Graeme Swann and Cheteshwar Pujara had no qualms about it. Both readily agreed that it was a different track to the ones usually found in the sub-continent yet a fair one for Tests, and why not.
Swann picked five wickets in India’s first innings, bowling 51 overs, almost a third of the total sent down by his team and Pujara got his maiden double ton, almost as if the pitch was a near flat-track. When this Test match is dead and buried in the history books, these two performances will be what the sizeable crowds here will cherish the most.
The obvious difference in their art forms as a bowler and a batsman, the challenge before them was similar – to not let this peculiar pitch affect their psyche. For Pujara, it was about consistency, continuing in the same vein as against New Zealand. It was necessary to showcase his temperament against an arguably better side.
India winning the toss and Gautam Gambhir wasting another opportunity granted him an easy chance. Meanwhile, for Swann, the task was made a tad more difficult with England refusing to pick Monty Panesar as their second spinner.
To think, however, that Panesar’s presence might have made a difference to India’s 500-plus score is being optimistic. He doesn’t boast of a great record in India and at best would have provided support to Swann, sharing the work load. Beautifully as Swann bowled, 51 overs per innings is asking a lot and he will only survive an injury scare (given his elbow problems) if India bat once in each of the four Tests.
Unlike Ravichandran Ashwin, Swann is a more classic off-spinner who doesn’t rely on bounce too much. Sure, he has played on English wickets that afford a whole lot more than he will find anywhere in India. But that doesn’t dilute his bowling, simply because of the alterations in lengths that need to be bowled in the sub-continent.
And unlike Harbhajan Singh, he is never ever afraid of giving loop to the ball. On the first day, as also for much of the second day, he bowled with a softer old ball and since admittedly that was harder to grip, a five-for was a proper reward for his sweat and toil.
Virat Kohli’s dismissal was a joy to watch, the ball seeping through a huge gap between bat and pad. In terms of out-thinking the batsmen though, the most prize-worthy was Sachin Tendulkar’s wicket. The Little Master had just pulled Swann to midwicket for a gorgeous boundary. Not only did the bowler put a guard on the ropes, he shorted his length just a wee-bit.
Enough to lure Sachin into thinking he could take the aerial route, for six this time, only to find the ball not pitched up to his foot movement and hence lofting the ball.
Sehwag too resisted sweeping Swann for the entire first session. And when he did give in, he was bowled. A look at his pitch map indicates Swann bowled full, allowing the ball enough flight on most occasions. He found more success against the left-handed batsmen, scalping Gambhir with one that stayed low and of course troubling Yuvraj Singh for long. Overall, right-handers got the better of him, thanks mainly to Pujara.
He is quite an affable guy and keeps things simple. Like putting a price on his wicket at all times, a thumb rule of batting. Only once did he play the ball in the air and it was a near chance for England, early in the innings when he was matching Sehwag in scoring rate.
After that, he settled down and the opposition didn’t get a whiff for nearly five sessions. A nice forward stride for defence, rocking back to cut away deliveries with width, calm demeanour when Sachin and Kohli fell on day one, then patience enough to wait a night for his second Test hundred, and later waiting again to get the 200-run mark.
There are more than highlights of his innings that are etched in the minds of intently watching Indian fans. They are markers for the future.
His only concern was facing Swann, Pujara reflected after the second day’s play. "But after I faced a couple of overs from him, I knew I could handle things."
And he did, milking the bowling and waiting for bad balls. He picked 19 singles off Swann, majority of which came on the leg side, playing with the turn. He stepped out aggressively, though driving him down the ground. Four of his six boundaries off Swann came in this manner. In all, Pujara played 34 scoring shots against him, scoring 62 runs off 133 balls, with 99 dot balls.
Pujara blunted England’s prime weapon, in a manner befitting the successor of Rahul Dravid.
© Cricket World 2012
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