Pujara's third triple-century sets up huge lead
West Indies A 268 and 116 for 3 (Deonarine 44*, Fudadin 36*, Pandey 1-11) trail India A 564 for 9 dec (Pujara 306*, Gambhir 123) by 180 runs
While the fans of Indian cricket were struggling to come to terms with the inevitable retirement announcement of Sachin Tendulkar, wondering what life will be like without him, doubting if things will ever be normal again, Cheteshwar Pujara delivered immediate normalcy in the remote town of Hubli. Resuming the day at 139, he first accumulated, then looted, even as he farmed the strike, and became only the ninth batsman ever, and the second Indian, to score three first-class triple-centuries. His two previous triples came against Karnataka and Orissa
It wasn't a personal pursuit. Pujara's innings gave his side, trailing 1-0 in the series, four sessions within which to force a result. India A declared 296 ahead, and all three of their quicks delivered an early wicket each before the Guyanese pair of Narsingh Deonarine and Assad Fudadin saw them through to stumps.
Pujara's innings was just the feeling of serenity and calm that the Indian cricket fan needed. Nothing was done in a hurry, not one shot was uncouth. Pujara scored 60 in the first session, happily lapped up the life given to him in the last over before lunch, then hit away 107 of the 142 scored in the middle session, and declared the innings closed at the stroke of tea. Pujara's control was so comprehensive that he let the last man Ishwar Pandey face only three balls in a 5.2-over-31-run unbeaten partnership. Pujara scored 71 off the last 55 balls he faced.
Outside the usual drives and pulls, Pujara also manipulated the field with a reverse lap and a regulation lap off successive deliveries. How the fielders must have felt mocked. Two of the fielders weren't all that amused when a third bouncer in a Miguel Cummins over was called a no-ball. Ashley Nurse spoke to Pujara for more than two minutes with Chadwick Walton joining in.
Six overs later - as it happened on day two in the last over before lunch - Nurse had a chance coming his way at second slip, and dropped it. Pujara was 198 then. He took a single off the last ball and went off to sate the lesser of his hungers. When he came back, he had one delivery from Nikita Miller jump at him, but benefitted from the absence of a short leg. A leading edge in the next over fell short of point, but then he tucked one off the hips for his 22nd four and his eighth first-class double-century.
You knew a session of Pujara punishment was around the corner. In the back of your head was his sprint from 150 to 200 in 17 balls when Saurashtra were pushing for a declaration against Madhya Pradesh on the last new year's eve. Here he waited for a bit. Time wasn't quite right yet. With Uday Kaul he added a largely patient 93. Once Kaul got out, the switch was flicked. He was 235 off 360 when he pulled over the infield for a four.
Dhawal Kulkarni scored only six out of a 39-run seventh-wicket stand. Pujara wasn't muscling the ball, but hardly ever hitting to the fielder. At Kulkarni's fall, Zaheer Khan came out and swung a few, so Pujara took the back seat and let him do that. Zaheer's wicket brought another, and Nurse was now on a hat-trick, and Pujara was 273. Pandey played out the remaining two balls of that over, and bought himself a parking ticket at the non-striker's end.
For the next 23 balls, Pujara kept refusing singles, kept placing couples, kept hitting the boundaries, and eventually took a single off the fifth ball to reach 299. Pandey duly played out the last. As the field came up with Pujara on 299, he survived a lbw appeal from Delorn Johnson bowling left-arm quick from round the stumps. He played a scintillating cover-drive off the next ball to bring up the triple. The lead was now approaching 300, the clock was nudging 2.10pm, and the declaration was perfectly timed, merging the 10-minute changeover into the 20-minute tea break.
In the fifth over after the break, Zaheer trapped Powell who played across the line. Four balls later, Kulkarni struck the off stump of a left-hand batsman for the second time in the match, this time Leon Johnson, to make it 18 for 2. Kraigg Brathwaite fought hard, but didn't have the runs to show for the time spent at the wicket, and when he fell lbw to Pandey in the 18th over, the score had reached only 57.
That Deonarine and Fudadin played out the semi-new ball without many alarms made Pujara's innings seem even more significant in terms of time needed to level the series.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo