Test cricket in other parts of the world is not as celebrated as it’s in England. Everything around it has a special aura. If you want to witness cricket in its purest form, England is the place to be. However, no batter in the modern era, struggling for form and battling a thousand demons in his head, would wish that for himself on a chilly Sunday morning. It is not what an ideal Sunday is meant to be.
For perspective, we need to remember that international cricketers are not entertainers. They are bloody good at their job and displaying a skill set in front of public glare. Every single action is judged, every single moment is a battle between perceived notion and reality. You succeed, adulation overflows. A failure, everything is forgotten. The human body is not meant to withstand such dramatic swings of rationality but is there a way out?
The moment James Anderson sharply takes one away from Cheteshwar Pujara, beating his outside edge, you’d be compelled to imagine if it was going to be just another day in the office. Mark Wood was breathing fire in the morning, taking down both the in-form openers - KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma in some fashion. Ollie Robinson was fantastic throughout and despite his brief blip in the morning, there was his ability to force the batters to poke from the fifth stump line. With India effectively down to 0/2, none of the Indian middle-order was going to have it easy.
Perhaps, that’s why the efforts of Rahane and Pujara on Day 4 of the second Test need to be applauded. From an Indian perspective, it made the side believe that they could make a game out of this Test. Not so much they were doing more than they had to as the premier middle-order batters in the side, but factor in their form in the last two years, their partnership made for a compelling narrative.
Pujara’s recent struggles have been well documented. With an average of 28 in the first World Test Championship (WTC) cycle, Pujara was at the bottom of the pile among all top-seven batters in the Indian team. In 20 innings in England, he had just three 50+ scores. Implying that in a five-match Test series, he has scored one 50+ score or two at best, not good enough for the batting position historically reserved for the second-best batsman in the side.
On the other hand, despite leading the Indian team to success in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Australia, where his uncanny calmness played a big role in India seizing the key moments, Rahane has been underfiring for a while. He was India’s highest run-scorer in the maiden WTC cycle but his inconsistency has roughened it up a bit. For example, after his match-winning hundred in Melbourne, he has piled up scores like 22, 4, 37, 24, 1, 0. Since landing in England in early June, his scores have read 49, 15, 5, and 1. Not good enough for someone, who is widely acclaimed for his solid technique to succeed in seam and swing friendly conditions.
But on Sunday - not an ideal Sunday of course - when the duo met in the middle, they knew it was Now or Never. The credibility they have earned in their long career is down to their ability to rescue the team from tough situations and it was going to be a big test of their guts. Pujara didn’t score, neither did he fudge. He just did what the doctor ordered. Rahane, on the other hand, was more fluent but only as compared to Pujara. Everything seemed like a calculated assault or a planned move to bore the bowlers to death.
It helped that by employing a leg-side-dominated field, Joe Root went on the defensive. Every time Sam Curran had the ball, he wanted to overcorrect and generous thuds were presented. Even though the Surrey man smartly mixed his over-the-wicket bowling with round-the-wicket to confuse the right-handers with the line, it could hardly be a deterrent. The fact that both batsmen wanted to hang in there, Root couldn’t do much till Mark Wood brought the bouncer game to the fore.
Their dismissals along with that of Ravindra Jadeja have ensured the Test currently hangs in perfect balance and England really can’t claim ascendancy till Rishabh Pant is there. As Moeen Ali conceded in the press conference, “Anything over 220-230 is going to be quite difficult, but not impossible. We’re all going to have to play well but, when it goes above 230-240, it gets a bit harder. The new ball for both teams tomorrow is crucial. It’s going to be a brilliant game.”
On Monday, if the visitors somehow manage to salvage the Test, even if it meant a boring draw on Day 5, it will be a massive shot in the arm for Rahane and Pujara’s sagging fortunes. Indian cricket owes them a lot for being the middle-order rock for a decade now and this Lord’s Test will add a new chapter to their Oh-Well-Oh-No legacies.