England still unscrambling the Pujara puzzle
An intensely-fought first day in Mumbai even with India 266 for 6, and honours provisionally judged as "even, veering towards India" by the Confectionery Stall Momentumometer, a high-tech device which I have constructed in my hotel room, consisting of five budgerigars dressed in cricket kit, listening to commentary of the match on a bird-proof radio, and flapping up and down a miniature see-saw between porcelain figurines of Churchill and Gandhi.
This is, I must emphasise, a provisional verdict. I forgot to feed the birds yesterday morning and when I returned after close of play they were pecking vigorously at both of the great men's noses. (Here endeth the lie. Amen.) Whether or not honours are indeed even will not be known until later in the match. A first-day total of 266 for 6 might prove to be woefully inadequate, match-winningly massive, or precisely par for the pitch. I suspect it will prove above par for this particular pitch. The guilty verdicts returned in so many of England's recent trials by tweak, and the presence of three Test novices in what had until recently been an almost immovable upper order, suggests that India hold the upper hand.
However, they are not holding that upper hand in such a tight grip that it could not escape and slap them firmly in the chops. If Alastair Cook and Matt Prior play as they did in the first Test, if Jonathan Trott plays as he did in Galle, if Kevin Pietersen has one of his eenie-meenie-miney-mo good days, or even one of his randomly-allocated spell-bindingly amazing days, or if Monty Panesar finally builds on the promise of that sweep shot for six he hit off Murali in 2006, then the left-armer's four excellent wickets could prove to have given England decisive control of the game. Time, the secretive and temperamental little witch, will tell. And she will start telling this morning.
Yesterday's play was notable principally for the continued emergence of a new Indian cricketing superstar in front of an increasingly adoring public, the stirring but one-Test-overdue return of Panesar (still entrenched as England's second most successful spinner of the last 30 years behind Graeme Swann, after Samit Patel's failure in Ahmedabad to magically transform from the useful county support bowler he has always been into the new Hedley Verity), and an innings of striking class by India's No. 8 R Ashwin.
Rather unfairly from an English point-of-view, Ashwin scored a rapid, momentum-shifting and often majestic 60 not out, batting like a laboratory Frankensteining of Wally Hammond, Mark Waugh and VVS Laxman, rather than like fellow Test No.8s such as Andy Caddick, Mohammad Sami, and Ajit Agarkar (who, excluding his bolt-from-the-extremely-blue Lord's century, averaged 6.8 in 22 innings as a number at 8). One cover drive he eased melodiously to the boundary should have prompted the ICC to instantly revoke his licence to bat at 8.
Cheteshwar Pujara was again the critical force in the day's play. He has swiftly batted himself into (a) the hearts of the Indian nation, (b) statistical nirvana, and (c) the nightmares of the England bowlers and supporters. He again displayed flawless technique, 360-degree run-scoring options, the ice-cold temperament of a multi-award-winning penguin, and a deep-seated desire to avoid spending any more time than is absolutely necessary with his team-mates. There must be ructions in the Indian camp. Or perhaps Yuvraj Singh has started learning the trumpet. Maybe Gautam Gambhir has developed a new in-match superstition of reciting the lyrics of Celine Dion songs through a loud-hailer. It is conceivable that Pujara is terrified of Zaheer' Khan's lucky crocodile. I am speculating, but Pujara clearly hates being in the dressing room.
He also displayed a perfect reading of the match situation in the pacing of his innings, cautious from the early loss of Gambhir to the dismissal of Sachin Tendulkar (17 off 57 balls, 13 in singles), more aggressive in a stand of 58 with Virat Kohli as he prevented the innings stagnating (39 off 65, 11 in singles), before anchoring the innings after Kohli and Yuvraj fell quickly, scoring 58 off the last 157 balls he faced, 30 of which came in singles. His judgement of when to attack and when to defend, and whether to play forward or back, was matched by the decisiveness with which he put those decisions into action.
England mostly bowled well throughout the day, but forced barely a handful of errors from him, and were driven to some extremely creative thinking. When you have bowled more than 100 overs to one batsman without dismissing him, you must embrace innovation, and try to discomfort him with unorthodoxies and the unexpected.
England almost achieved this successfully when Pujara had scored 94, when a planned training-ground move came close to paying spectacular dividends. A shortish ball goaded the impregnable Rajkot Rock into playing a well-executed pull shot, rolling his wrists in accordance with the holy scriptures of the MCC Coaching Manual, sending the ball downwards towards the ground. Lying there in wait was short-leg's foot. The ball flew up, as minutely planned by the England strategists, and was caught - but replays showed it had bounced fractionally before striking Cook's foot. A ricochet off the boot was clearly the most likely means of dismissing a man who, at that point, had negotiated 668 balls in the series undismissed and seldom troubled. Tragically for England, the foot was an agonising few millimetres away from being perfectly placed, and their strategic masterplan was foiled.
The giant TV screen duly announced that Pujara was not out, the crowd roared like a stadium of Elvis fans after their giant TV screen announced that The King was not dead after all but had been tied up trying to get his internet dongle to work for the last 45 years. Trott politely enquired to umpires Aleem Dar and Tony Hill as to why it was not out. The two officials explained to the England No. 3 that the batsman cannot be out if the ball touches the ground before being caught. Trott responded, "Oh yes, you're right, I remember now, you told me that in Ahmedabad, didn't you? I'll write it down this time."
● Yesterday was my first experience of watching Test cricket live outside the UK, and it was tremendous enjoyable, a compelling day of hard-fought high-skill cut-and-thrust, played out in front of a crowd that was enthusiastic and of a reasonable size. Once I had managed to get into the stadium. I queued for over an hour ‒ in a not especially heavily-populated queue ‒ to be processed through the almost surreally inefficient ground security, which, to be entirely fair to it, did succeed in its principal task of making sure that no one had any of their own drinks or snacks in the ground.
I finally took my seat a couple of minutes before the start of play, in an almost empty stadium. Do people start queuing a week before an IPL game here? At least I, and the rest of the lucky few who had negotiated Gate C in time for the start of play, could settle down to watch Gambhir play brilliantly for one ball, safe in the comforting knowledge that no-one would be able to disrupt play by, for example, crunching on a crisp by the deep midwicket boundary and causing third slip to flunk a crucial catch, or slurping a glug of water too loudly in the top tier of the Sachin Tendulkar Stand just as the great man himself was taking guard and trying to hear the umpire telling him which way to move his bat.
Drinks are available in the ground, but they are specially-formulated "quiet drinks", which are scientifically unslurpable by anyone without a full proboscis. So they are fine.
I know there have been instances in the past where a nice, tasty snack has been wrongly used as a nice, tasty projectile, and that, given the less-than-gymnastic qualities of some of the Indian fielders, the BCCI are anxious to control their players' food intake. (In the past, the PCB had terrible trouble with the supernaturally classy but not-entirely-svelte Inzamam-ul-Haq, who was known to consume up to 8000 calories in a session just by grazing crowd-thrown nibbles in the outfield.) But is confiscating all food really necessary? Particularly when one of the foodstuffs most readily available in the ground is the samosa, the "easily-flingable" triangular snack with "superb ballistic qualities", according to International Food Fighting Monthly magazine.
"Perfectly shaped to fit between the thumb and forefinger," continues the esteemed publication, "the samosa is ideal for both beginners and experienced food-fighters. It is widely used by professionals in the big-money American NFFL, and is a critical component in the arsenal of any serious mealtime pugilist, its aerodynamic crust enabling precision hurl-control, and its succulent payload of finely-chopped meat and/or vegetables rewarding the skilled comestible-combatant with a potentially bout-winning splatter-radius."
Cameras were also prohibited. But not mobile phones. Most of which contain a camera. Clearly, it is not that the authorities want to prevent paying spectators from having their own personal photographic memento of their day at the Test match. It is just that they want those photographs to be not particularly good. Unless the spectator has a high-spec camera-phone, in which case they have clearly earned the right to snap away like the Patrick Eagars they have always dreamed of being.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer