It’s not half-way on the first day. Out in the middle, the spinners are making a jovial picture of themselves. They have extracted four out of the five wickets. Only this time the batting side is not England.
MS Dhoni has seen stranger days. But India losing half their side on a Wankhede pitch with 119 on the board is something he wouldn’t have envisaged. This wasn’t the crumbling track of 2004 that made a Derek Underwood out of Michael Clarke. The turn wasn’t vicious; the bounce not the hazardous type that knocks the ribs.
Yet India, at 266 for six, have climbed their way out of a rut, courtesy Cheteshwar Pujara’s undefeated 114. Ravichandran Ashwin (60 batting), who has a Test hundred here, showed as much composure as a frontline batsman. Their 97-run stand can now make India ambitious considering that they are fielding a three-pronged spin attack.
The man who imposed the grip early in the Indian innings was erroneously left out of the first Test. Shane Warne had once remarked that Monty Panesar had played the same Test 37 times, mocking at his inability to evolve. Seven years have gone by, and Panesar is obviously a different bowler now. Warne himself has confessed to have passed on a trick or two. And Panesar credits him for it.
But who would have thought Panesar would camp himself by India’s fortress so early in the contest. While Virender Sehwag was in, Alastair Cook gave him the cushion of a long-off. When Pujara and Virat Kohli were reviving India, he engaged an in-and-out field.
Not that all of Panesar’s dismissals were a gem or could be attributed to the wicket’s misconduct – though the one that claimed Dhoni did bounce disconcertingly.
The ball that deranged Sehwag’s wicket brushed his pad first. A set Virat Kohli, another of Panesar’s four victims, departed driving uppishly to cover.
Panesar had probably reserved his ace for the best of his spoils: Sachin Tendulkar was deceived by one that landed on leg and spun a shade to beat a half-forward stride before clipping his off-stump. Yuvraj Singh, too, was done in by a hesitant stride. Just that the bowler was Graeme Swann, who may not remember the last time he got a ‘bowled’ with one that didn’t turn by a hair’s breadth!
In the mean time, the barren spell continues for a batting giant. Ricky Ponting and Tendulkar are training their guts out but the runs have just dried up. The recent Ranji hundred had raised vision of a Tendulkar summer, even if brief. And yet and yet.
It was up to Cheteshwar Pujara to do the spadework once again. There wasn’t the slightest strain evident in the knock, for he gave his strokes a free fling whenever the English bowling dropped off. It’s another matter that James Anderson’s fielding is giving Pujara a cozy security blanket. Anderson grassed a fairly takeable chance off Panesar at slip when Pujara was 60. Remember, he had let Pujara off at mid-on (on eight) in the first Test too.
There was another iffy moment as Pujara closed in on another hundred. A savage pull ricocheted off the short-leg fielder’s boot to mid-wicket’s hands, but replays confirmed it hit the ground first.
Prising out India’s lower-order early could be England’s best chance from here on. Cook may disagree. Instead, he might want the long hours from his video analyst for a thorough study of Pujara who is yet to be dismissed in this series.