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Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane stitched a 141-run partnership © AFP

Indian middle-order has often been criticised for its dismal performance for the past year or so. It was either the top or lower middle-order that took the team out of the woods. In fact, India needed a staggering pair to emulate what Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman did: stitch long and tenacious partnerships. It puts the opposition on the back foot. More importantly, it exhausts them. In the process, the bowlers are forced to make unforced errors. And in India’s scorching heat, the task gets even tougher. India haven’t had such stand for a long time now. Enter Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. The duo added 141 runs for the fourth wicket in the second Test against New Zealand at Kolkata’s Eden Gardens.

Virat Kohli won the toss for the sixth consecutive time, choosing to bat first. The wicket appeared grassy early morning. The conditions were humid. All in all, it was mouth-watering for the pacers. Meanwhile, New Zealand announced Ross Taylor as the stand-in captain, given Kane Williamson was down with fever. All the same, the visitors read the pitch well. They dropped Ish Sodhi and picked speedster Matt Henry instead. The stage was all set for the New Zealand pacers to rock the Indian top-order.

The ball took off the surface when pitched outside off; it stayed low (subcontinental bounce per se) when hit in the line of stumps. New Zealand attacked with two different kinds of pacers: Henry hit the deck hard and Boult swung it. Also read – Virender Sehwag: Sourav Ganguly always backed me

Shikhar Dhawan, who Kohli called a ‘natural replacement’ for injured KL Rahul, was given a nod to open with Murali Vijay. Boult hit back of length, moving it away from the southpaw. Wicketkeeper BJ Watling took it chest high. The third ball of the over took everyone aback. Watling had to jump to pouch it over his head. Dhawan had no option but to leave everything (memories of England and Australia tour must have reignited in his mind). Dhawan took a single off last ball and retained strike.

Henry to Dhawan. The Gabbar of Indian cricket survived the first three deliveries, eventually inside-edging the next one onto the stumps.

In came Pujara at No. 3. Along with Vijay, he added 27 runs, before the former edged one behind the wickets. Truth be told, it was unplayable. He angled in on off and seamed away from Vijay. It was the corridor of uncertainty that Henry focussed on hitting. The result was fruitful. He scalped in-form’s Vijay’s wicket. More importantly, he broke the Vijay-Pujara partnership.

Kohli joined Pujara in the middle. New Zealand pacers bowled short, with leg-slip and forward short-leg in place. They left no stone unturned to keep Kohli’s genius at bay. Also read: Rahane terms Kolkata wicket ‘two-paced’

Taylor introduced his go-to bowler Boult into the attack. He welcomed him with his trademark cover-drive, similarly the way he hit Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc. Boult then pulled back his length. Unknowingly to Kohli, the left-arm pacer was setting him up. And Kohli did exactly what Boult wanted him to do: he edged it to Tom Latham at gully.

All this drama to walk you through how difficult the conditions were; playable but difficult.

The scorecard read 46 for 3 when Ajinkya Rahane took the guard. India’s reputation of losing quick wickets was talked about. All the same, two of finest Test cricketers —Rahane and Pujara — were in the middle.

Rahane took his time to get his eye in. Pujara, on the other hand, played shots with conviction. However, he watched the ball closely, making sure he plays it late. Moreover, he stood deep in his crease. That gave him extra time to judge the seam movement. He left the deliveries as soon as he got in an awkward position. In short, he was not willing to commit a mistake. However, he pounced on bad deliveries. Virender Sehwag, in the commentary box, was happy with his approach, for the man himself thrived on belligerence. Also read: Ganguly reveals dressing room secrets

Meanwhile, footage of the mammoth 376-run partnership between Dravid and Laxman at Eden Gardens was played time and again.

The batsmen in the middle oozed of a similar class. Rahane and Laxman are natural stroke-players. Pujara and Dravid thrive of textbook cricket. A trip down memory lane kept everyone curious.

Rahane took 35 deliveries to hit his first four. He beautifully drove down the ground.

Meanwhile, New Zealand bowled with utmost discipline. They did not give away easy runs, the way they did in the first match. They seemed to have learnt their lesson. To put things into perspective, they have a reputation of punching well above their weight. India, on the other hand, played fire with fire. Their insuperable will to keep the wickets intact put them in the driver’s seat.

They went into tea at 134 for 3, without losing a wicket. They were going slow, but at the same time, they made sure they keep the scorecard ticking. India had won the second session.

As the day progressed, the track slowed down. Pujara and Rahane scored runs at a brisk rate. In addition, the New Zealanders appeared tired. Both batsmen danced down the track and pierced the field with ease. And just when India took control, Pujara yet again threw away his start. What looked like a daddy hundred was reduced to 219-ball 87, and the partnership ended on 141. Also read: Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag pick their favorite India Test

As a matter of fact, this was Pujara’s third consecutive hundred-plus stand.

141 isn’t big a number, but the impact it made on the scoreboard tells the story. India ended Day 1 at 229 for 7. As a result, if these two had not stepped up at such crucial juncture, the hosts would have been bowled out for a paltry total. However, if India manage to reach 300, it would be competitive, given Williamson’s absence.

The grass will dry. There will be more rough patches as the game progresses. Hence, Indian spinners will bowl their heart out to bog down the fallible New Zealand batting unit.

What New Zealand would look to do is, build a partnership that Pujara and Rahane did. Nonetheless, for that to happen, they will have to pass test of execution as well as endurance.

(Kaustubh S. Mayekar, a reporter at CricketCountry, played cricket at U-16 level. Like his idol Rahul Dravid, he often shadow-practises cricket shots. His Twitter handle is @kaumedy_)