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Cheteshwar Pujara’s maiden Test hundred carried India to a comfortable 307 for 5 at the end of the opening day of the first Test against New Zealand, at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium here on Thursday.
Pujara, who is often perceived to be Rahul Dravid’s rightful replacement at No.3, justified his claim on that spot with a timely, unconquered 119 (226b) that pegged a butter-fingered New Zealand on the back-foot after M.S. Dhoni had elected to bat.
He and Virat Kohli (58) added 125 runs for the fourth-wicket to resurrect India, furthering the case for India’s next generation of Test batsmen after Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal had plunged the hosts to 125-3 and the stadium into a stunned silence.
Having lost the openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir earlier, India were in a shade of trouble when this congregation of calm heads took over in the middle. The Pujara-Kohli duo played itself in and in the last session, turned their watchfulness on head and into full-blown attack.
Although India lost Kohli and Suresh Raina – both to shots best avoided – towards close, Pujara and Dhoni (29 batting) ensured no further setbacks were suffered against the second new ball, which was taken in the 80th over.
India would be satisfied with the position of relative strength that they managed to eventually attain, despite top batsmen losing out to indiscriminate shots.
To begin things, Dhoni elected to bat, compelling counterpart Ross Taylor to cast a forlorn eye towards the camera - Quite understandable! Not many visiting captains would welcome the thought of enduring India’s batting might on the opening day of a tour.
But New Zealand, who opted for three seamers and one spinner, didn’t do all that badly. There was swing in the early stages, and added to the hastiness with which India’s openers launched into their shots, traffic in the first session wasn’t necessarily one-way.
Gambhir caressed a boundary off Chris Martin’s first ball of the match, but appeared to be a shade watchful when the left-arm fast bowler Trent Boult came in to bowl. The southpaw attempted to dab it down to third man – feet frozen, playing away – and was caught behind, triggering horrendous memories of similar sloppy dismissals that marked his last tours of England and Australia.
Sehwag was sedate at the start. His first four came only after seven overs, but once that was nailed, the Najafgarh opener went on the offensive – often benefitting from heaps of luck. Sehwag’s 47 contained nine boundaries and also two reprieves.
When he had made 21, Sehwag’s pull shot just about beat a charging Daniel Flynn at square leg. Doug Bracewell came in for some special stick – an upper cut and a slash gained four apiece – and Sehwag, then on 35, received another kiss of fortune when a thick edge off the same bowler screamed through between ‘keeper and first slip Taylor.
New Zealand troubled India so long as they kept the ball full, and one such delivery finally accounted for Sehwag. After being pushed to the backfoot by the veteran Chris Martin, the maverick opener was cramped for room by Bracewell and ended up edging to Martin Guptill at second slip.
India were 97 for two going into lunch, the past and the future holding fort in the middle through the physical expressions of Sachin Tendulkar and Cheteshwar Pujara – both on 12 each.
The two had added 48 when catastrophe struck after lunch. It’s no secret that biggest roar at stadia across India is reserved for Tendulkar. It’s no secret either that the silence his dismissal generates is equally incomparable.
The little master threw the crowd into one such stunning stillness when Boult forced a delivery through his defences, cutting short his return to international cricket to a laborious 19.
Pujara, in his fourth Test match, was now batting as comfortably against Martin, Boult and Bracewell as he was against the off-spinner Jeetan Patel. The 24-year-old reached his second Test fifty with a sliced four off James Franklin, even as Virat Kohli at the other end used his feet to good effect, scoring when the chance presented itself.
At the commencement of the third session, Pujara was dropped on 60 at short leg by Flynn off the bowling of Patel. The Saurashtra lad switched gears almost immediately, creaming three boundaries in an over off Boult, lofting part-timer Kane Williamson for six, and wading into Martin when the bowler offered width.
Kohli, who had motored along rather nicely until then, was also handed a life when Taylor at slip dropped him on 46. India’s young star couldn’t really capitalize – he brought up his fourth Test fifty with a streaky shot, and followed it up with another half-hearted slash that cost him his wicket.
India was on exactly 250 then, with Pujara still going strong at the other end. He played the waiting game for a bit in the Nervous Nineties, and reached his maiden Test hundred in 169 balls with a delicate flick off Franklin, justifying his No.3 spot. Late in the day, Pujara was let off when he apparently gloved Martin to the wicket-keeper van Wyk, but the umpire turned down the appeal.
Another man whose Test career was thrown a rope, kicked it away with impunity. Suresh Raina ended his return to the longest format with a 13-ball three, dabbing Patel unnecessarily down the leg-side and into the gloves of the wicket-keeper.
Dhoni came in and smashed a six off Patel, ascertaining that he’ll be there to resume afresh on the morrow and drive in the stake deeper into the visitors’ hearts.