As the Monday sun started moving West, it began raining boundaries at the Palam Air Force Sports Complex in New Delhi. The Services players hopped all around the field chasing the red cherry as Cheteshwar Pujara made them dance to his tunes.
The fixture between Services and Saurashtra was heading towards a draw on the final day after the hosts batted for the first two days before declaring at 536/7.
The men from the armed forces have already lost a couple of chances to rise atop the points table in their group due to the Delhi weather and probably, the plan was to pile up the runs and bundle out the visitors with a first-inning lead to gain the much-needed three points. They achieved what they set out for but only after breaching ‘The Wall’ of the modern era.
Pujara, who recently completed 20,000 First-class runs, retired hurt on the third day with a back spasm after scoring 9 runs. However, half-centuries by Kevin Jivrajani (52) and Vishvarajsinh Jadeja (88) fueled Saurashtra’s reply to Services’ massive first innings total followed by a 98-run partnership between Arpit Vasavda and Chirag Jani. And once the fifth-wicket stand was broken, the focus shifted to Pujara.
The 36-year-old was back in the middle with one-and-a-half-session left in the day. It was the same old Pujara, taking his time to settle in, with no unnecessary risk-taking, leaving the good balls and punishing the loose ones.
With Saurashtra at 366/5, the match officials called for a tea-break. Pujara was unbeaten on 43 off 78, in the company of Vasavda (67 not out).
An eventful 3rd session
Saurashtra needed another 171 runs to deny Services the first innings lead. And what unfolded thereafter was magical.
A Pujara-classic for the next 60-odd minutes was a sight to behold. An array of shots was on display. Be it a pull, a sweep shot, reverse sweep or lofted drives… he offered everything. The most audacious shot of his was sweeping Services pacer Varun Chaudhary for a boundary between mid-wicket and square-leg.
Often being under the lens for scoring at a low pace, the right-hander was muscling almost every ball with authority to keep the Services fielder warm in the cold Delhi winter. In the next 55 balls since tea break, Pujara added another 48 to his score and was cruising towards the second ton in the ongoing season.
9 short of his 62nd First-class hundred, Pujara looked to sweep a Poonam Poonia delivery but couldn’t connect and was clean bowled.
A magnificent innings finally come to an end. Disappointed over his dismissal, Pujara headed towards the dressing room with his head down but was greeted with a standing ovation from his teammates for his intent, which gave headache to their hosts for over three hours.
Ferocity of a Wounded Lion
Pujara’s intent was unmatchable when he walked out after tea. Probably a little back massage he got during the break and a cheerful chat with captain Jaydev Unadkat raised his spirits, making him forget the pain that had forced him out of the field a day before.
The experienced Saurashtra batter missed out on his hundred by a meagre 9 runs and coach Neeraj Odedra termed it a ‘special knock’.
“Yesterday when he came out to bat, he had back spasm. But he’s a sort of a person who would bat with 13 stitches in his hands like he did against Assam and batted for more than two hours,” said Saurashtra coach Odedra.
“He had a bad back but still came out for the team and played a special knock of 91 runs and the entire team appreciated it. It was a great effort from Pujara, especially going for runs and keeping the time and overs in mind. It was a special innings,” he added.
The way Pujara played in the final session, and for that matter, the rest of the players delivered was part of the plan. After all, the team was chasing those three extra points which they would have gained if they had taken the lead. But unfortunately, they went to Services.
“Obviously, we had to go for the runs. I’ll always prefer to have three points rather than one, I’m that sort of a coach. So, even if the last ball of the day was bowled, we would have gone for runs,” Odedra said.
No Test Return Yet
The BCCI on Monday announced a few changes to India’s Test squad for the ongoing England series at home. Ravindra Jadeja and KL Rahul have been ruled out of the second Test in Vizag, starting February 3.
While Jadeja suffered a hamstring injury on the fourth day of the opening Test in Hyderabad, Rahul has pain in his quadriceps. The Indian cricket board has handed a maiden call-ups to Sarfaraz Khan and Sourabh Kumar, and all-rounder Washington Sundar has also been added to the squad.
Interestingly, Pujara remains a major absentee in the squad for the second England Test despite scoring more than 500 runs in four games in the ongoing Ranji Trophy. He began the season with a magnificent double-century against Jharkhand (243*) in Rajkot before securing two 50-plus scores, in Nagpur and Delhi, respectively.
Given India’s shocking defeat on the Hyderabad pitch, the team could have incorporated an experienced hand in the mix. However, captain Rohit Sharma has stated the youngsters also deserve equal opportunities, adding that the door of the Indian dressing room isn’t closed for the seasoned campaigners.