CHENNAI: Day three in Test cricket are the moving days. At the Wankhede Stadium, the writing was on the wall even before the play began on Sunday.
India were only going to make it a slow death for New Zealand for the 332-run lead at the end of Day 2 was more than enough to force a win. Still, India had a lot to look forward to, especially in the batting front.
No matter how good a batter is, nothing gives them more confidence than runs next to their name. And it is what India would have preferred too ahead of the South Africa tour, where Virat Kohli & Co are seeking a first-ever series win.
Test cricket rarely gives opportunities like this. With the result almost a foregone conclusion, this was one of the days where batters — read Cheteshwar Pujara — had all the time in the world to find some confidence-finding runs, one that could help save the spot.
Truth to be told, there is no immediate threat to his place because India are not keen on having two inexperienced batters in the middle-order of all places in South Africa, where even the best need time to get used to the bounce.
That said, it also allows the team management an opportunity to even bring back Ajinkya Rahane, who despite all the struggles, has looked the better bet between the two and is missing this Test only because he is ‘injured.’ So was it for Kohli, who is searching for his first international century since November 2019, but definitely far from being put in the ‘out of form’ category.
So for Pujara, who walked in as opener since Shubman Gill couldn’t bat on Day 2 because of injury and already had 29 to his name, Sunday was ideal in terms of what he needed.
Sure, the pitch was taking turn. But there were runs for the taking too, provided he negated the threat that Ajaz Patel would bring.
And the manner in which he started the day had all the makings of what you call a typical Pujara inning, where he holds fort and once settled, would be hard to dislodge.
He wasted no time in using the feet against Ajaz and started off with successive boundaries. And there were two more attacking shots, the ones that one can usually expect from Pujara whenever spinners err in length. Yet, the innings didn’t last long as Ajaz found his outside edge to cut short Pujara’s innings for 47.
That India were in no mood to rush despite the lead swelling beyond 400 said a story or two. After Pujara, it was the turn of Kohli to get some valuable runs on board.
While the Indian captain went about it patiently, he could only manage 36 before playing one from Rachin Ravindra onto the stumps.
Around them the likes of Shubman Gill, Shreyas Iyer, Axar Patel all played cameos before India declared at 276/7, setting New Zealand a target of 540.
“I won’t call it a delay as there is so much time left in the game. The idea was to bat as long as possible as this kind of a situation, you don’t get every day, so the plan was to make the most of it. We were trying to explore variation options and check out. What if we have to chase on this kind of a track on the last day, trying to express ourselves in a different situation,” Axar said of India’s plan for the day.
And chasing an improbable total, New Zealand’s task was always going to be daunting on a pitch that was only going to assist the spinners.
At stumps on Day 3, the Black Caps had half the side back in the pavilion and have only 140 on board as India look set to take the series on Monday.