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Cricket news - The Pujara, Rohit inflexion
At 12.40 on Saturday afternoon, after more than two hours of absorbing cricket, India found themselves exactly where they had been at the start of the fourth day's play - leading South Africa in the Vizag Test by 117 runs. As bodies in the stands moved around listlessly, getting comfortable in their seats post the lunch break, India had begun to grow uncomfortable on the field with how the Test match had developed. They'd not been made to feel this way in a home Test for a while.
South Africa had turned the 'draw' into a very probable outcome. Their final two first-innings wickets batted 56 minutes of time and snipped out a further 46 runs from India's score with Senuran Muthusamy invoking the spirits of Sam Curran, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon during in his 106-ball knock of stoic resistance. Then, Vernon Philander bowled three successive maiden overs and then admonished himself when he gave away two in his fourth. The pitch was offering plenty of turn but hadn't deteriorated into near-unplayable levels as it was expected to. So India couldn't simply nurdle the ball around and sit on a 250-run target.
It was amidst this quandary that Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma batted in the post-lunch session. Two more different personalities and batsmen will be hard to find. Each must watch the other and yearn for the one skill they didn't possess themselves. Pujara would admit as much post the day's play that he would love to imbibe Rohit's six-hitting abilities and turn into a white-ball batsman. Rohit, too, would love to have a slice of Pujara's grit and batting discipline in his new journey in Test cricket.
This dichotomy extends to an overarching narrative. Since their days of Under-19 cricket, where Pujara opened and Rohit batted at three, their careers have run on parallel tracks. Pujara turned into the Test match specialist and Rohit, into a limited-overs behemoth. These were the two undisputed batting greats of Indian cricket from the same era, who just hadn't batted enough together in international cricket.
And it showed. As South Africa applied the choke, Rohit pushed for a tap-and-run single straight from his ODI playbook. Pujara took a step and flatly refused. This was cricket as an expression of self. It wasn't about right or wrong; it was just their contrast put into context in one ball. This was being.
Rohit's desperation was there to see, and also hear, with the stump microphones picking up an expletive during his rebuke of his partner. His natural response to the match situation was to attack and transfer this pressure back. Through his conservatism, Pujara wanted to ensure South Africa didn't get an opening to begin contemplating the possibility of a win.
It was after that over that the teams took the first of two drinks breaks of the session. Rohit was animated through the interval, chatting with his partner while guzzling his energy drink. His frustration stemmed from the fact that India hadn't overly benefited from him motoring away to 47 off 63.
The lead was only 134 because Pujara had got stuck in quicksand. It needed two to tango to push the game forward. South Africa had bowled 61 balls to India's No.3 giving him only eight runs. It was attritional Test cricket at its best. Philander bowled straight lines at Pujara with a short cover and two men on the drive on the legside, a short mid-wicket and a silly mid-on.
For the first time in the Test, Dane Piedt, too, found control against a still-to-settle Pujara, pushing his ball through on a middle stump line with the aforementioned leg-side fielders, plus a forward short-leg and a square leg, all cutting out Pujara's famed skip and whip to the onside. Even two tough dropped chances, when Pujara remained on 8, didn't seem much too costly for South Africa in the context of their stranglehold and where they were in the game at that break.
Test cricket, however, can be a brutal game at times. One moment it is a warm blanket on an autumn day and the next, it peels away all your layers and leaves you pinned to the turf. Occasionally it exposes you to the full range of a batting genius like Pujara, who has built his reputation in these lands with near-infallible methods against spin.
It took another stumping miss off Piedt to kick Pujara out of a stupor. The next ball, Pujara shimmied out again and whipped the ball past mid-wicket for four. In the next over, he took similar deliveries from Keshav Maharaj and hit them past mid-on and extra cover for fours.The same shots he'd been hitting to the fielders before the break, now threaded through the gaps. It was the point of impact on the bat, Pujara would reveal, that had to be tweaked to play on this slightly slower wicket. After 61 balls of non-action, a little shift had brought him four boundaries in seven balls.
Up to this point, South Africa had worked around Rohit, absorbing his hits by keeping Pujara quiet. Now the latter's brilliance became an instrument of torture for the spinners as he picked off boundaries at will. Then came the punch to the gut. Piedt, mindful of Pujara's frequent forays down the ground, dropped one short only to see the batsman rock back and launch into the stands at mid-wicket for the 12th six of his Test career. A huge grin broke out of Rohit's face. He'd hit 10 in the Test match at that point and would finish with a world record 13.
Soon it was time for the next drinks break. The narrative had been flipped and how. From 8 off 61, Pujara picked up 41 off the next 42. To put Pujara's acceleration into perspective, Rohit went 12 from 30 in this period. The latter, had, however, only briefly toned down attack, now eschewed it. By 2.20 PM, Pujara and Rohit were both batting on an identical score - 65 - a subtextual inflexion point of sorts in their careers. India's lead had passed 200 and the pair had ensured one outcome of the game (a South Africa win) was now largely an academic possibility.
After a thrilling dalliance with each other's identities, Pujara and Rohit returned to their ways. The former, having been beaten by two Kagiso Rabada deliveries, took guard again and started with a block. The latter stepped out to Piedt and clobbered him over long on for another six, continuing his clinic of attacking batsmanship on what was still a tough fourth day turning pitch.
By 3:16 PM, the duo had put on 169 runs - 140 of which had come in a 34-over session. Pujara fell 19 short of his ton, but Rohit hummed on to make it a nice pair of centuries on his birth as a Test opener. Declaration was no longer about how many runs India wanted South Africa to score, but how many overs they wanted their beleaguered opponents to bat.
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