Mumbai: Since he took over from Anil Kumble as India's Test captain, MS Dhoni has often complained of never getting the pitches that turn and bounce enough to make the most of India's spin-bowling strengths. On the first day of this Mumbai Test, his wish was finally granted. The slightly grassed but bone-dry surface made for an engrossing contest, and India ended the opening day on 266 for 6 after Alastair Cook lost another toss.
Though not as crumbly as the surface on which India and Australia contested a Test in 2004 – it lasted just 202.4 overs – there was significant bounce and appreciable turn from the first session. It needed another marvellous hundred from Cheteshwar Pujara to hold India's innings together, as Monty Panesar marked his return to the England fold with a four-wicket haul. (Adjoining image courtesy BCCI)
In that 2004 game, VVS Laxman stroked a wonderful 69 and there were echoes of his batting in the way Pujara went about his innings. Resolute in defence, assured with his footwork and ruthless against the bad ball, he made light of conditions that claimed far more illustrious colleagues. He put together half-century partnerships with Virat Kohli and Dhoni and then, with the innings listing at 169 for 6, a vital 97 with R Ashwin, whose belligerent 60 frustrated a tiring attack. ( Also read: India vs England, Day 1: Match moments)
Pujara batted 564 minutes and faced 440 balls without being dismissed in Ahmedabad. Here, his defiance spanned 279 balls and six hours. On a surface where could you see more than the odd puff of dust, he was seldom uncertain when tackling the spinners.
England didn't help their cause by once again failing to grasp the half-chances. Pujara was 17 when a lofted cut off James Anderson fell inches short of Nick Compton at point. He was 60 when a diving Anderson grassed a low chance at second slip off Panesar, even as the bowler was about to wheel away in celebration.
When he had 94, England thought they finally had him. But several replays convinced the third umpire that the pull off Graeme Swann had ballooned to midwicket via the turf and Cook's toe.
Between the reprieves, Pujara was especially proficient at working the ball off his pads, whether it was turning or coming to him at pace. It took him 110 balls to bring up his half-century, and with wickets falling around him, he was even more vigilant thereafter.
England got the perfect start when Anderson swung the second ball of the match into Gautam Gambhir's pads. Tony Hill, the umpire, was convinced that it pitched in line and was going on to hit leg. In his 100th Test, Virender Sehwag started promisingly enough. There was a withering swipe through midwicket when Panesar started his spell with a full toss, but also good fortune as fours came off both the inside and outside edges against Anderson.
In his prime, Sehwag rarely squandered a start. Lately, however, he has been susceptible, and when Panesar angled one in, he played down the wrong line to be bowled off the pads. Sachin Tendulkar, who arrived to much acclaim, lasted just 12 balls and was beaten by an even better delivery that pitched on leg and took the top of off stump.
Kohli didn't find any fluency but he and Pujara staved off the bowlers till after lunch. But as in Ahmedabad, Kohli couldn't carry on, driving Panesar on the up to Compton at cover.
Yuvraj Singh lasted two balls, playing inside one from Swann that took off stump, and Dhoni came out intent on disturbing the bowlers' rhythm with some aggressive shots. But after making 29, he was undone by the bounce. Panesar teased him forward and the ball took the shoulder of the bat through to gully. Several replays were needed to make sure that Swann's fingers were under the ball.
Ashwin took two fours in an over from Broad, easily the most expensive of the bowlers, but was fortunate that Aleem Dar chose to ignore an excellent shout from Panesar when he had made 19. The rest of the afternoon was an exercise in frustration for England.
The second ball after the new cherry was taken, Pujara pulled Anderson to bring up his century (248 balls) and Ashwin then played some pleasing strokes on either side of the wicket as India batted themselves into a position of strength.
With Umesh Yadav injured, they had sprung a surprise at the toss by giving Harbhajan Singh a 99th Test cap, the first time that India had played three spinners in a Test since Mohali against England in 2006. England replaced Ian Bell with Jonny Bairstow, while Panesar took Tim Bresnan's spot.
And as well as Panesar bowled, the story of the day was once again India's new No.3 – solid, unflappable and in the mood for runs.