Monty’s magical moment; Pujara’s sustained excellence

A moment of perfection or accumulated excellence? A superb day’s cricket in Mumbai offered both and whilst it was the moment of perfection from Monty Panesar that caught the eye and will stay in the memory, when he bowled his childhood hero, Sachin Tendulkar, in the morning session, it was the accumulated excellence, six more hours of it, from Cheteshwar Pujara that shifted the advantage marginally towards India by stumps.

Pujara finished the day unbeaten on 114, to add to the mountain of runs he scored in Ahmedabad, and without him India would have been in a hole of their own making. For it was Mahendra Singh Dhoni who criticised the Ahmedabad pitch and called for one that turned on the first day here, and he certainly got his wish fulfilled. The ball turned sharply and consistently for both Panesar and Graeme Swann, who shared five of the six wickets to fall.

India, by the way, reacted to England’s reintroduction of Panesar as a poker player might react to an opponent’s check call. They simply raise the stakes, by adding Harbhajan Singh (small matter of 406 Test wickets) to their ranks, so that they now have three spinners to England’s two. The locals do not expect this pitch to die like last week in Gujurat and so that advantage may be significant. More significant may be the way England bat.

By the time Panesar had picked up his fourth wicket, India’s captain might have momentarily questioned his own demands for a raging turner, for when he was well caught low down in the gully by Swann in the sixty-second over, India were wobbling on 169/6. It needed a bristling 60 from Ravichandran Ashwin, the off-spinner who started life as a batsman, in a partnership of 97 with Pujara to dampen England’s revival.

Pujara was superb again. When he swivel-pulled the first delivery he faced of the second new ball from James Anderson to the leg-side boundary to bring up his hundred, he had batted for 884 minutes without defeat. As in Ahmedabad he gave one half chance when, on sixty, he was put down in the gully by Anderson off Panesar. It was a difficult chance, but given the form Pujara is in, it is the kind of chance England must take.

His leg-side play was clinical, his defence was impregnable and his concentration was unstinting. He sailed on serenely as each of his partners came and went, and looked equally unnerved when England appealed for a catch that they felt, but replays did not confirm, had come off short-leg’s boot before settling into the hands of mid-wicket when he had scored 94.

The identity of the fieldsman at short-leg was a puzzle and given the need for the captain to have a panoramic view of proceedings, as opposed to a close-up of the batsman’s backside, it should not have been Cook, who had planted himself there for much of the day. It is all very well to lead from the front, but this was taking that old leadership maxim of never asking anyone to do anything you would not be prepared to do yourself, a little too far.

Cook possibly erred by attacking Ashwin at the start with Stuart Broad whose two overs to the off-spinner cost sixteen runs (although the captain had earlier shown his flexibility when bringing on Swann as soon as Yuvraj Singh came to the crease.) But Broad is rapidly becoming England’s not-go-to man on this tour, and his twelve overs all told cost sixty runs. At least with the spinners operating in tandem for long patches of the day, England’s strategy in the field had a more adaptable feel.

Panesar’s return was the main reason for this. His opening spell, three hours either side of lunch, included the wickets of Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Tendulkar, a treble to brag about. In fact, his figures of 23-5-62-3 at this stage did not represent his very best work and flattered him ever so slightly, as he was too full in length, too often. He got better and better throughout the day.

There may be many days to come in Panesar’s career, days when the ball nestles like a favourite marble in his hands, when his control of length and line is immaculate and when deception comes easily to him. But no matter how many of these days he enjoys in future, he will look back at a moment in time yesterday morning and remember a delivery that represented the best of his art.

It was sixteen minutes before 11 a.m., on the kind of hazy morning that you often get in Mumbai at this time of year, when Tendulkar walked to the crease. Sehwag had missed a leg-stump half-volley from Panesar moments before and, in truth, had never really looked settled. Gautam Gambhir, his partner, had earlier departed to his second ball, leg-before to an Anderson in-swinger, to raise England’s hopes that their task would be a less thankless one than it was in Ahmedabad.
Tendulkar settled quickly, pushing a brace down the ground, which brought a brief rat-a-rat of applause in the press box, although not from the crowd, which was largely absent owing to the paucity of entrance gates that were in operation at this famous old ground. The massed ranks outside missed the first two wickets in the morning session, and would have be near the front of the queue if they were not to miss their hero, too.

Fourteen minutes after he faced his first ball, Tendulkar looked up and waited as Panesar gathered himself at the end of his mark at the start of his seventh over. An economical eight paces, with a raise of the right knee and a tip-toed gather at the start, is all it took Panesar to get to the crease; gather, pivot and down the ball went, curving and dipping into a line on middle and leg stump.

Tendulkar moved half-forward and, understandably enough since not much had yet spun, looked to manoeuvre the ball to leg. He turned his wrists, which in turn rotated the face of the bat, and he waited for the impact that never came. Instead, sharp spin took the ball past the grope and when the death rattle came, Tendulkar, still on the front foot, was forced to duck his head and peer through his legs, to see his off-stump that was now flattened to the floor.

It was a perfect delivery. For the rest of the day it did not get any better than that for Panesar. It couldn’t. There were good moments alright, such as when Kohli drove loosely to cover. But, momentarily, Panesar had achieved perfection. It was Pujara, though, who stayed the course.