After coming into bat at 37/1 in the 8th over of the innings, Cheteshwar Pujara scored only three runs from the first 30 balls he faced. Almost every modern-day batsman would have begun to feel the pressure of the sluggish start.
But not India's phlegmatic number-three. In an era when most batsmen cannot abstain the urge of putting bat on ball without getting settled at the crease, Pujara is a throwback to the good old days of Test cricket.
The early phase of his Southampton masterpiece saw him leave with complete authority. This was not just aimed at preserving his wicket with utmost sincerity but was also about sending a strong statement to the England bowlers. They were in for a scrap.
Pujara got into the groove with a delectable square drive off a full ball from Sam Curran. He also endured a serendipitous moment against the probing Stuart Broad when his ungainly cut flew above the lurking slip cordon.
Even as the attention was fixated on the contest between James Anderson and Virat Kohli, another engrossing tussle began to develop between the England spearhead and Pujara. The unflappable 30-year old latched on to a short delivery way outside the off stump and then proceeded to infuriate his opponent by displaying adroit defensive technique.
When Joe Root started to rely on spin to break the blossoming partnership, Pujara responded by deftly manoeuvring the strike. Curran's second spell yielded a massive reward for the hosts. The left-armer accounted for the in-form Kohli by luring him into the drive.
On either side of tea, the decisive passage of play turned into a nightmarish one for India as their lower middle-order fell prey to Moeen Ali. In what could be described as a devastating spell, the wily off-spinner wreaked havoc by dismissing Rishabh Pant, Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin and Mohammed Shami in the space of 16 manic deliveries.
Stoic Pujara turns gloom into hope
When Ishant Sharma joined Pujara in the middle, India were reeling at 195/8. They were trailing England by 51 runs. On a pitch where batting was becoming progressively tougher, any sort of lead would have delighted the hosts and consequently made life tougher for the visitors.
Pujara was happy to let Ishant take the strike against the spinners. But he fiercely protected his batting partner whenever Root called upon his seamers. Inching closer to the momentous three-figure mark, he punished Moeen off the back foot before dancing down the track to an overpitched delivery.
Batting on 96, Pujara saw Moeen remove Ishant. With only Jasprit Bumrah available at the other end, it was now or never for the reliable right-hander. He brought up the finest century of his Test career thus far by charging down the pitch and lofting the off-spinner straight.
Keen to eke out whatever amount of runs he could, Pujara resorted to uncharacteristic shots to revert pressure back on England. The ease with which he used the crease to tame Moeen not only reiterated his remarkable spin-playing credentials but also served as an instruction manual for his more acclaimed teammates.
Pujara took India into the lead even as the England seamers started to lose control of their plans. He hammered back to back boundaries against Broad as if to consolidate his ascendancy over the proceedings.
By the time England finally managed to procure the final wicket, Pujara had turned a sizeable deficit into a handy lead of 27 runs. He remained unbeaten on 132 and singlehandedly overturned a gloom-filled situation into a potentially seismic moment for India in the match as well as in the series.Published 01 Sep 2018, 00:02 IST