Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara stand up to scrutiny - and England
Old friends extol virtue of experience to bat away questions about their futures
It was 41 minutes into play on Sunday morning when Cheteshwar Pujara stood up from the while-paneled bench in front of the Pavilion at Lord's. He put on his gloves, entered the ground, rotated both arms languidly. His body language did not suggest this was a man battling for his career.
But the interrogation from his arch nemesis, James Anderson, would start straightaway. Anderson kept his line of attack on Pujara's off stump, instantly drawing an outside edge that landed in front of Joe Root at first slip. The next ball thudded into Pujara's thigh pads and fell in front Haseeb Hameed at short leg. Pujara would see out the over with a confident tap under his eyes. But Anderson had his tail up, chirping with Virat Kohli, which allowed him to put that extra few clicks into the delivery despite his bowling a long first spell in the morning.
Pujara was not getting distracted, though. First ball of the next Anderson over, he pushed in front of square, and cried out a loud and clear "NO, NO" to Kohli, who sensed Dom Sibley was running in from backward point and hence there was single for taking. By then Pujara's innings was 14 balls old, but he was yet to open his account.
Pujara was in no hurry. He would not be pushed. As the afternoon stretched it became clear Pujara had told himself and probably the team management that if they wanted him to make a difference they had to let him be himself.
Nearly three-quarters of an hour after entering the ground, off the 35th delivery he faced, Pujara pushed Sam Curran towards midwicket and ran a single. Lord's let out a chuckle and a happy chant of "Pujara, Pujara". He had finally opened his account.
Eight minutes before lunch, Ajinkya Rahane walked in to join Pujara, his close friend from age-group cricket. Both players had started their careers at the same time. They played for the same team in Mumbai's corporate cricket league. Their game is built on old school cricketing values and traditions. They have a thorough understanding of the other's game and respect each other's methods.
The match was on the line now and India's fate was in the hands of two men who have been struggling with difficult questions in 2021: about form, mindset and technique. Could the two old pals combat England when their own place in the team was being questioned?
On Friday, Anderson had got Rahane off the first ball he delivered in the morning. That he had worked on his technique between innings became evident even before the first ball he faced on Sunday when Rahane took the leg-stump guard and stood with an open stance. In the previous two innings Rahane was more on middle and off, but clearly he had figured that was forcing him to be more squared up. Off the third ball he faced, Ollie Robinson hit his front pad with a delivery that nipped back. HawkEye showed the ball missing leg stump… just.
An hour into the second session, India had scored just 19 runs. The pitch had become innocuous and soft and the ball was growing old. But the runs were not flowing as they did on Saturday afternoon when Joe Root was in command. Root has been in the form of his life, his confidence was high on the back of a century in the first Test and his biggest strength has been to not leave balls with the aim to transfer the pressure on the bowler.
In contrast, Pujara and Rahane have been searching for runs all year. But they couldn't counterattack like the England captain because that would expose India's lower order. So their plan was to get entrenched into the second session even if that meant the runs dried up. Of the two, Pujara was especially happy to just defend virtually every ball. While the debate outside was about the absence of intent to score Pujara's intent was to not let the bowler have any advantage.
Mid-afternoon Lord's would erupt into a sudden applause. Pujara had faced 100 deliveries for the first time this series. The last time he had done that was back in February, against England in first innings of the first Test in Chennai. His first four came after 118 deliveries when he flicked Mark Wood.
Despite the scoreboard barely moving, England were getting desperate. Half an hour before tea, Wood went round the wicket and sprayed several bouncers at Pujara. Having faced the sustained spells of short-pitched bowling from Pat Cummins and co. in Australia, Pujara had developed a boxer's instincts to read the line of attack. Still Root surrounded the batter with several close-in fielders: short leg, silly point, leg slip, fly slip along with deep square leg and long leg. Pujara remained unruffled.
For the first time this series, India would bat out an entire session. But what was their plan now? While Rahane and Pujara looked settled they were not still able to score freely. The new ball was about 20 overs away. Should they attack or was it more prudent to just stay put? The Test was still bubbling with various possibilities.
With under an hour's play left as the light began to fade, the intense vigil of Pujara and Rahane came to an end. India's lead was about 140. So how should both men look back at their days' work? Could they have done anything different especially to score at a slightly faster clip?
These are not easy questions to answer from the outside. When Pujara and Rahane walked back to the dressing room, both men received strong applause both from the crowd and from head coach Ravi Shastri and captain Kohli. Despite the immense pressure they were under, Rahane and Pujara had walked in with a clear plan and picked India up from a difficult spot at lunch and carried them to a potentially match-winning position. A lead of anywhere near 200 could be quite challenging for England.
Both Rahane and Pujara extolled the virtue of experience. As for the questions about their futures, you'd think that has been pushed aside for the time being.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo