Sehwag, Pujara give India the edge

Swann claims four wickets on opening day.

Terrific Ton: Virender Sehwag's hurried century set India up nicely on the opening day. (File Photo)

Scorecard | Media blackout

Virender Sehwag’s post-Diwali fireworks and Cheteshwar Pujara’s scalding solidity singed England on the opening day of the first Test as India posted a commanding 323-4 at close of play at Motera's Sardar patel Stadium here, on Thursday. Sehwag plundered 117 in as many balls after MS Dhoni elected to bat on a pitch expected to wear out, and featured in two pivotal partnerships. He first dominated the opening pair’s first century stand in almost two years, and then associated with Pujara (98*) for 90 runs for the second wicket.

Although Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, playing on the 23rd anniversary of his Test debut, were out in quick succession, and Virat Kohli was dismissed in the last session, Pujara’s steadiness plotted India on a course of domination in this first Test match of a long home season ahead, negating Graeme Swann’s four-wicket haul that proved to be the lone positive for the visiting side.

On a progressively wearing subcontinental track, first innings scores made on a relatively fairer wicket have a great bearing on what direction a Test takes – and keeping in mind that England, with all their vulnerability to spin, are likely to bat on the treacherous fourth and fifth day pitch, India’s first day aggregate is a firm step towards a comprehensive victory.

Swann stars, England miss out

Swann picked up all the four wickets to fall, and on a turner expected to worsen England would be cursing themselves for choosing fast bowler Tim Bresnan over left-armer Monty Panesar in the eleven. The visitors would also rue the four-odd chances they spilled through the day – one each of the openers, and of Pujara and Kohli. 

England's three pacers collectively sent down 44 overs for a wicket-less 193 runs, while Swann alone snared four, giving away 85 in his 32 overs. But the morning belonged as unequivocally to Sehwag as the afternoon did to Pujara. The dashing opener raced to his 23rd Test hundred as he put on 134 with Gambhir (45). Sehwag put England’s pacers to the sword. He reached his half-century in 45 balls and required as many more to double his score.

James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan toiled fruitlessly, Swann teased and tested in phases; but at no point were the batsmen made to endure prolonged phases of discomfort, as Sehwag and Gambhir proved they were yet the premier opening pair in the country. Gambhir showed a somewhat mangled purpose against Swann, but England’s gradually drooping shoulders indicated that they were aware of India’s record of never having lost a home Test match after posting an opening century partnership.

First session: Sehwag dominates as India bat

The run up to the series had been all about the dwindling fortunes of India’s opening pair, about England’s lack of exposure to spin, about BCCI’s stand-offs with broadcasters and news agencies and how it was likely to be a series centered on the weaknesses of teams rather than their perceived strengths. Within five overs it was clear what pattern the match - perhaps even the series - would evolve along.

The hosts elected to bat and there were indications already of a disintegrating wicket near the footmarks. England’s two frontline fast bowlers had, in this short initial span, spouted words of frustration, words that are likely to be their constant companions as the series progresses.

The visitors’ aggravation had a lot to do with Sehwag, who – as Sanay Manjrekar put it - “doesn’t get too shackled by the concept of the game”.  On Thursday, Sehwag blazed away, carrying his partner Gambhir to their first century partnership since Centurion in 2010.

Sehwag had reached 79 in just 66 balls by lunch, taking India to 120 without loss, and was cruel on the seamers. He picked Anderson for three fours in an over early in the day and took 15 in an over - including a massive six over mid on - off Tim Bresnan

Swann tested Gambhir, who tried to assert himself and often ended up in a tangle when he strove to make room. But It was clear by the first interval that it would take some doing on England’s part to reverse the trend of India’s dominance.

Lunch: India 120-0 in 28 overs (Gambhir 37, Sehwag 79)

Pujara showed his class, yet again.Post lunch: Careless Prior, lucky England

Play began with a bang after lunch. Sehwag, then on 80, glanced Anderson in the first over after resumption, but Matt Prior failed to latch on to the tough leg-side offering. In the next over, Swann drew Gambhir out with a tantalizer, only to have Prior – again! Oh, horror of horrors! - fluff the stumping chance. But Swann had his man two deliveries later, sliding one into Gambhir, who tried to make room to play on the off side and was bowled in the bargain for 45.

Swann was now tossing up enough bait for the batsmen to bite. But in Pujara he found a nous of batsmanship slightly disparate from the cagey aggression of Gambhir. India’s young replacement of Rahul Dravid padded away, stayed back, and cut forcefully each time the visiting off-spinner erred in length. A phase of grinding now began with Pujara holding one end up and Sehwag slowing down as he neared his century.

Alastair Cook had no slips for the new man Pujara as Bresnan steamed in for the first time after lunch. Pujara, then on 8, miscued and top-edged the last delivery of Bresnan’s over to mid-on, but luckily the ball soared over Anderson’s outstretched arms. Sehwag reached his hundred with a boundary off Swann and then surrendered the onus of scoring to Pujara. The Saurashtra batsman had made just 4 in his first 21 balls, but gradually started to open up and dominated the 90-run stand.

India took drinks on 190/1 in 43 overs, with Sehwag on 109 and Pujara on 30. The recently engaged Pujara flicked Bresnan for boundaries, cut Broad with confidence and was circumspect to Swann, soon reaching his second Test fifty in 67 balls.  Sehwag became Swann’s second victim when he was bowled trying to sweep one that was pitched wide on the off side. The wicket took Swann ahead of Jim Laker as England’s leading off-spinner and brought Tendulkar to the crease on the 23rd anniversary of his Test debut.

There was no fairytale in store for India’s darling. He looked in good touch, cracking fours off Anderson and Swann, before giving up his wicket a few minutes away from tea. Having struck Swann for a boundary over mid-wicket, Sachin got deceived in flight as he tried to plonk another one over the leg-side, only to be caught by Samit Patel at mid-on for 13.

Tea: India 250/3 (Pujara 68, Kohli 0).

Post-tea: England restrict, Trott tries to cheat

Sehwag’s dismissal followed by Sachin’s ouster slowed India down as England finally applied the brakes. Pujara was as solid as ever, but Virat Kohli was slow off the blocks. He took 29 deliveries to get off the mark – with a classy on-drive off Broad – and almost became Swann’s fourth scalp when Jonathan Trott dropped him at slip, rolled over and appeared to have completed the catch on second attempt.

Replays indicated that Trott had grassed the ball, but the redoubtable England player’s body language gave no indication of him having done so – in fact, Trott appeared nigh confident of snaring a successful catch before replays showed him up.

Kohli was bowled by Swann off one that ripped back menacingly from outside off, allowing Yuvraj Singh to take guard in a Test match for the first time since last year against the same opposition. Pujara was now back in defensive mode. He played out the last session with caution, eschewing risks and gathering runs by the single as India reached 300-4 in the 84th over.

Cook took the new ball in the 87th over, hoping for a fortuitous breakthrough at the fag end of proceedings. But Pujara ensured no such mishaps were endured, spanking two boundaries off Anderson’s last over of the day to finish two runs away from a deserving hundred, with Yuvraj (24) for company.