Hyderabad: Day one of a long season of Test cricket in India was all about Cheteshwar Pujara, with a dash of Virat Kohli thrown in.
India's Gen Next rose manfully to the challenge of following in the giant footsteps of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in front of an impressive spectator count in excess of 15,000 at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Hyderabad on a working day Thursday.
New Zealand didn't have the most potent bowling attack, but when Pujara was joined by Kohli early in the second session on the first day of the first Test, India were in some strife at 125 for three. ( Related: Statistical Highlights of Day 1 )
By then, Pujara had already booked himself in for the long haul, catching the eye with his poise and sparkling back foot play in his first Test since January 2011. Kohli didn't suffer in comparison, though he will kick himself for having thrown a Test hundred away, during an excellent fourth-wicket century stand that hauled India out of the woods and took them to 307 for five at stumps.
Pujara's maiden Test century in his fourth game was impressive in the manner in which it was compiled – patiently but without being overly so earlier on, and in a flurry of strokes that took him from 50 to 100 in just 50 deliveries. It was an innings that was made even more special because, apart from the inevitable personal pressure he must have felt on his comeback, he had to also address the demands of the team whose batting woes seemed to have spilled over to the new season as well.
India got off to a customary frenetic start after Mahendra Singh Dhoni won the toss, though neither Gautam Gambhir nor Virender Sehwag looked in complete control. There was bounce and swing early on; New Zealand will feel Chris Martin and Trent Boult ought to have exploited the conditions better, but Gambhir and Sehwag rode their luck to put on 49 in quick time when Gambhir was caught behind off the persevering Boult.
By then, Daniel Flynn had already put Sehwag down off Martin, a difficult chance as the top-edged pull kept going away from the mid-wicket fielder. It was one of many half-chances that eluded the New Zealanders – Ross Taylor, the skipper, had a particularly ordinary day at first slip, reacting late to at least three chances that he might have latched on to on another day – though apart from Pujara, no one really capitalised on the let-offs.
Boult and Doug Bracewell, until he limped off the field with cramps, kept plugging away, but as the surface flattened out, they began to look less and less penetrative. By evening, there were worrying signs for New Zealand with more than the odd ball keeping low.
Sehwag was the first of the gifts New Zealand hung on to. Playing one shot too many, he was snapped up at second slip by Martin Guptill trying a cut to a delivery that slanted in to him and cramped him up for room. Kohli was dismissed in almost identical fashion much later, the only difference being that the ball was a lot wider.
Sehwag's dismissal typically robbed India of momentum. Sachin Tendulkar, extremely cautious, was content to hold his end up, though Pujara occasionally livened up proceedings with excellent cuts both against the pacers and Jeetan Patel, whose offspin was at best steady.
The innings reached a flashpoint with Tendulkar's dismissal, by Boult. The left-arm paceman brought one back into Tendulkar and breached his defences to hit off and middle. Tendulkar squatted after the ball had passed him, suggesting that it had stayed down, though in reality, the vagaries of the pitch had very little to do with his downfall.
New Zealand were suddenly pumped up, aware that all the experienced Indian batsmen were back in the hut and the soft underbelly that the middle-order might be lay exposed. Their designs were comprehensively repelled by Pujara, batting with supreme authority, and Kohli, clearly buoyed by his recent limited-overs form but competent enough to adapt to the demands of the longer version.
Kohli's on-drives matched Pujara's stunning back foot play on the offside – he repeatedly found the gap between backward point and wide mid-off with consummate ease – as the initiative slipped out of New Zealand's grasp. With Patel failing to exert any pressure worth the name and the fast bowlers finding no joy from an ageing ball, Pujara and Kohli went on the attack, pulverising New Zealand in the first hour of the final session.
Ragged and clearly on the defensive, New Zealand were allowed a foot in the door through Kohli's adventurism. Pujara, undaunted, tickled a single to fine-leg for his 100th run, celebrated with gusto by a generally restrained individual; he re-gathered focus quickly, particularly after Suresh Raina's comeback lasted only 25 minutes before he was strangled down the legside.
Dhoni, all fire and brimstone, made most of the running towards the end as India saw off the threat of the second new ball, Pujara surviving a very confident shout for catch at the wicket off Martin when 117.