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Imperious Pujara fights Sri Lanka fire with commanding ton

Riding on opener’s 135* and a good hand by Mishra, India ends day two on 292 for 8, with Prasad taking four wickets

Imperious Pujara fights Sri Lanka fire with commanding ton - Cricket News
Cheteshwar Pujara remained unbeaten on 135 to take India to 292 for 8 at stumps on Day 2.
In searing heat and with the humidity stifling, this was a classic confrontation between fire and ice. Inevitably, given the conditions, the fire would lose its sting; also inevitably, you would think, the ice would melt at some stage.
Fortunately from an Indian perspective, while the heat and the workload gradually took the sting out of from Dhammika Prasad, Cheteshwar Pujara was not to be halted at the SSC ground. Pujara, only playing the final Test because of the injuries that have laid first-choice openers M Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan low, produced the most courageous and laudable of his seven hundreds, an innings of outstanding concentration and great skill on a most demanding surface.
Saturday’s (August 29) second day wasn’t entirely about Pujara. Prasad was an equal partner in making this a fascinating several hours of cricket with his third successive four-for, and Amit Mishra played a sensible and hardly passive act in a vital eighth-wicket stand, but if Pujara stood head and shoulders above the rest, it was for the fortitude and determination he showcased and which had been missing from the rest of the celebrated top order.
India had started the second morning at 50 for 2 with Pujara, in the relatively unfamiliar role of opener, and Virat Kohli facing the onerous task of keeping Prasad and Nuwan Pradeep at bay on a surface that had a lot of life in it. Kohli, never convincing during his laboured stay, was scalped by Angelo Mathews, before Prasad fired out Rohit Sharma and Stuart Binny either side of lunch with successive deliveries.
At 119 for 5, India was in some trouble, and Prasad was at the forefront, having bowled his heart out despite carrying a niggle of sorts in the back of his neck. If, from there, the visiting side recovered brilliantly to reach 292 for 8 before rain brought a premature halt to the proceedings, it was largely on the back of Pujara’s accomplished unbeaten 135. Stands of 54 for the sixth wicket with Naman Ojha, the debutant, and 104 for the eighth with Mishra, batting with a positivity and common-sense that would have done the more accomplished batsmen proud, most certainly helped as India ended the day the happier of the two teams.
It was only when the Pujara-Mishra stand grew in stature and proportion that the pitch seemed to have flattened out a touch, but isn’t that generally the case when two set batsmen kick on and cash in on the hard yards put in earlier? There was plenty of assistance for the quicker bowlers, especially in terms of seam movement, all the way through, even during the eighth-wicket tandem. Prasad exploited that advantage beautifully during an early morning spell of 4-1-9-0 when he could easily have picked up two or three wickets, and then the mid-afternoon burst of 8-3-22-2 either side of lunch when, despite visible physical discomfort, he lost neither bite nor spirit.
But try as hard as he did, he just could not find a way past Pujara. This was by no means a flawless compilation – it just couldn’t be, given that you could never ever feel that you had the measure of the pitch – but it was as close to it as possible. Pujara was occasionally beaten outside off as the ball took off from a length or jagged around as if possessed by a mind of his own, but otherwise, he addressed the demands with a big of heart and a broad bat. Playing close to his body – unlike Kohli and Rohit who were both caught groping at widish deliveries that could have been left well alone – and therefore eliminating the barn-door gap between pad and bat that had proved his undoing in England and Australia, Pujara tired out the pacers during the first half of his stint before cashing in as the sun was enveloped by the clouds.

By then, he had seen Kohli, who survived two big shouts in the day’s first over from Prasad, falling prey to his propensity to shuffle far too across and therefore play at deliveries well outside off, and Rohit – who scored almost exclusively off Rangana Herath – gobbled up behind the sticks. Kohli didn’t look secure during his 40 minutes at the crease on the second morning, his only scoring stroke a skewed drive off Pradeep that sped through point; his dismissal after adding exactly 50 for the third wicket meant the onus was on Rohit to string together another alliance with Pujara.
Rohit was becalmed against the pacers – 29 deliveries against Prasad, Pradeep and Mathews produced only four singles – though he did smack Herath for three fours and a six, scoring 21 of his 26 runs off the left-arm spinner. With lunch imminent, though, he hung his bat out to dry and allowed Prasad to find the outside edge after putting on 55. Binny’s credentials as a Test allrounder and his tenability at No. 6 were again brought into sharp focus as Prasad pinged him in front with an inducker with the very next ball, 40 minutes later, as India slipped deeper into the quagmire.
Ojha walked in to a crisis on debut and immediately acquitted himself with no little credit. He was decisive and forceful off the back foot against the pacers and secure in defence to both the quicks and to Herath and Tharindu Kaushal, batting with the felicity and aplomb of a batsman who averages nearly 44 in first-class cricket. Pujara, industrious in working the gaps and running between the wickets, was still the dominant partner but he could afford to rely on Ojha for support until, against the run of play, Ojha dragged a slog-sweep straight down the throat of long-on.
R Ashwin’s recent batting travails extended to another innings as he did a Kohli-Rohit imitation act, poking at the first ball of Prasad’s third spell of the day – another wicket at the top of his spell – to give Kusal Perera his second smart catch of the innings. The end appeared nigh at 180 for 7, but almost everyone had contended without Mishra, who had two previous fifties, a Test average in the early 20s and a highest of 84.
Mishra took a special liking to Prasad, smashing him for four fours in three overs including a peachy straight drive  that hurtled to the boundary before the bowler had so much as completed his follow-through. Soon after that flurry, Pujara reached three-figures with a hurried single to mid-off, the perfect riposte after being benched for India’s four previous Tests.
By now, the boundaries were flowing. Mishra’s footwork was delectable, his stroke-making imperious while Pujara oscillated between watchful defence and solid ball-striking. Pujara and Mishra converted the fourth stand in excess of fifty to the first 100-plus partnership of the innings, their eventual 104 an eighth-wicket record at the SSC.
Herath finally broke that tango in his 24th over by having Mishra smartly stumped but long before that, the psychological shift in India’s favour had been all too obvious. Sri Lanka also put down Pujara on 117 – Pradeep was the guilty party at long-leg as the batsman put up a hook off Mathews – and will reflect on how it allowed India to escape from 119 for 5 and reach the position it is in now.

To see the full scorecard, please click here.

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