Pujara's fighting ton holds India together
India 292 for 8 (Pujara 135*, Mishra 59, Prasad 4-83) v Sri Lanka
Live scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Cheteshwar Pujara, previously out of the side to presumably accommodate a more forceful batsman and an extra bowler, scored his first Test century since the last month of 2013 to deny Sri Lanka clear advantage in the rain-hit SSC Test. He was helped along by Amit Mishra's third Test fifty, an enterprising effort, to rescue India after Dhammika Prasad had reduced India to 180 for 7. It was thanks largely to Prasad that Sri Lanka didn't lose the advantage of bowling first on a pitch with uneven grass covering, which offered seam movement and variable bounce. Pujara and Mishra added 104, the highest eighth-wicket stand for India against Sri Lanka, the highest at SSC, with Mishra's 59 the highest by a No. 9 at SSC.
Given almost a whole day's play has been lost to rain, India might just have enough to feel they can't lose the Test. They can thank Pujara for that. Batting above his preferred station, thanks only to injuries to the openers in the side, Pujara knew he had a brief window to make impact to earn a long-time return. On a pitch as challenging as this, the impact was not going to be immediate, but any runs he scored would be valuable. And he scored an unbeaten 135 of them out of India's 292 for 8.
Immediate impact was left for Prasad. That Sri Lanka ran the risk of wasting the conditions is evident from how they had to bowl 37 overs of spin out of 95.3 on a seaming pitch. Angelo Mathews, the third seamer, doesn't bowl long spells because of back issues, and Prasad bowled only short spells. In the short spells, though, he struck instantly. He took out KL Rahul in the first over of the match, nearly had Virat Kohli in the first over on the second morning, took out Rohit Sharma with the last ball before lunch and Stuart Binny with the first after, and then R Ashwin with the first ball back.
The first wicket of the day, though, went to Mathews, and that too after Kohli had survived a close call off Prasad and seen his burst off. He just couldn't help pushing defensively at wide balls that he is better off leaving alone. In England, it proved to be Kohli's downfall. In Australia and in the two previous Tests, the ball hardly seamed so Kohli kept getting away with it. This time he nicked off.
This brought together two men whom a fully fit India XI might not have space for: Pujara and Rohit, the last two specialist batsmen. After surviving a streaky chip early in the innings and then successfully taking Rangana Herath's spin on, Rohit once again fell just before an interval. In the previous Test, his dismissal brought an end to the day's play; here he ended the first session. Prasad pitched close enough to make Rohit push at this, and the ball just held its line to take the edge. This was the fifth ball of the over, but lunch was taken immediately. Post the break, India's suspect No. 6 Stuart Binny came out to bat. He got a near perfect ball, a ball you can't mean to bowl. You can only hope that a ball shaping up as an outswinger pitches on the seam and then jags back the other way. That's what happened with the first ball after lunch, and Binny was trapped lbw for a golden duck.
Naman Ojha, the debutant, went on to have an important partnership with Pujara. But once the two had worn the bowlers out, with the ball 60 overs old, Ojha holed out when slogging against Tharindu Kuashal, who provides loose balls if you wait for them.
Ask Pujara. He had to wait and wait and wait in the first session, leaving balls alone outside off, defended when they made him play, absorbing the pressure dot after dot after dot. He didn't feel the itch to score runs even when he spent 23 balls on the score of 31. At times he even shaped up to play at balls, and then withdrew at the last moment realising they were outside off and not seaming in.
Pujara was provided a release by the inconsistent Kaushal. He had come on for the first time 30 minutes before lunch, and offered a long half-volley. Pujara had only just got off 31, and he unfurled a cover drive for four and then cut a short ball past slip. Then came a good delivery, but Pujara was in a different mood now, and drove through point. He also drove Prasad to the boundary off the back foot, a shot Pujara had shelved earlier.
Pujara reached his fifty minutes before lunch, and well known for accelerating after passing through an early period of defence, he went from 31 off 91 to 101 off 219.
Pujara found a perfect partner in Mishra. After Ashwin had fallen to a loose push outside off, Mishra came in full of intent. He refused to get bogged down, didn't play the most orthodox shots, but succeeded in frustrating the tired Sri Lankan bowlers. Pujara showed full faith in Mishra's abilities, and the two stole the initiative from Sri Lanka who would have had hopes of batting for a major part of the final session.
Although a few balls turned and bounced from the edge of a grassy patch on the pitch, which should encourage India should the match go into the fourth innings, the pitch had by and large settled down by now. The ball did seam, but Sri Lanka didn't help themselves by bowling either too short or two full at Mishra. By the time Sri Lanka finally found a way past Mishra, who got too close to the ball when charging at Herath and was stumped off his pads, the clouds had come in and cost the Test another hour. Only 95.3 overs were bowled in the first two days.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo