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Colombo Test, Day 1: Pujara, Rahane tons put India in charge against Sri Lanka

NEW DELHI: To think that Cheteshwar Pujara played his 50th Test almost seven years removed from his debut is a bit of a puzzle. A long journey that began with a brisk 72 off 89 balls against Australia has been interrupted by many speed bumps: injury, questionable overseas form and repeated jibes of not being the quickest of scorers. But everytime Pujara has gone about his business with a bat in hand, one always knew that he possessed the element of being a proper Test batsman.

In fact, the tour of Sri Lanka in 2015 can be called his metamorphosis where he struck a fine 145 against them in the final Test of the series. Hence, it was only fitting that he not only played his 50th Test against the very same team at the very same venue, but mark the occasion like only a proper Test batsman could. Pujara solidified India’s foothold on the opening day of the second Test between the two sides by scoring a 13th century, which was also his third successive one against them. Pujara’s knock, combined with another solid hundred from Ajinkya Rahane allowed India to milk the advantage of batting first on a dry surface and post 344/3 by stumps.

On his way to a century, Pujara also awarded himself a couple of cherishable landmarks. He established himself as the second-fastest Indian batsman to 4000 Test runs and overtook South Africa’s Dean Elgar as the leading Test-scorer this year; a fine way to compensate after he had responded terribly to a call from KL Rahulsecond over into the session – one resulted in the loss of the opener’s wicket.

Rahul’s recovery from illness meant that he slotted right back in ahead of Abhinav Mukund. The Colombo surface was a far cry from what it looked like the last time India played a Test here: it was far drier, and hence Sri Lanka put their faith in spinners, playing four of them. But the way India piled on the runs, you knew it was ineffective.

Rahane and Pujara’s was the perfect follow-up act to the good work by Rahul andShikhar Dhawan in the first session. Rahul marked his return to the Indian side with a fine half-century. Once Dhawan had got the ball rolling for India, Rahul’s eighth Test fifty of his career ensured the start was capitalised on.

Dhawan dispatched the fifth ball of the second over for a huge six. The left-hander made merry off Rangana Herath and Nuwan Pradeep, who collectively conceded 48 in the first eight overs. His purring drives and destructive pulls were indication of a man coming behind a 190-run knock, and it provided Rahul the insurance of playing  himself in.

Sri Lanka thought they had struck gold, when Rahul was adjudged LBW to Dimuth Karunaratne’s probing stump-to-stump line. But the joy was short-lived when India took their first referral and succeeded. But if India benefitted from their review, so did the hosts. First ball from offspinner Dilruwan Perera hit Dhawan’s front pad while sweeping, and while the umpire thought it was going down leg, wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella did not, and went upstairs to have the decision changed.

Rahul, as usual, was immaculate with his foot movement to spinners. Herath was taken for consecutive boundaries in his first spell and then swept again first over into his second. Malinda Pushpakumara, after a maiden to begin with, was taken for two boundaries in successive overs. Rahul brought up his sixth consecutive Test fifty with a wonderful lofted drive towards long-off.

It’s not as if Sri Lanka did not have chances at all. They had an opening when they removed Rahul and Kohli in a span of 24 runs soon after lunch. Rahul would rue his unfortunate run out, while Kohli, fresh from his hundred in the previous innings at Galle and looking in immense control with a couple of crisp boundaries, looked set for a daddy hundred had it not been for a spectacular catch by Angelo Mathews at slips. At the fall of Kohli’s wicket, Sri Lanka sensed a chance of crawling back into the game.

 But then, at 130 odd runs for three wickets, Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane dished out a counter-attacking knock. The two savagely accounted for 105 runs in 17.5 overs purely in the second session, almost at the rate of knots. From 101 runs in the morning session, India piled 137 in the second. All those runs in double quick time hurt Sri Lanka. Pujara’s first 29 runs came off 94 balls; the next 56 took 41. Rahane meanwhile, started on fourth gear from the outset. It weren’t the boundaries that dented Sri Lanka’s confidence, it was the running between the wickets that Rahane was so alert to. They remain unbeaten with a stand of 209 between them. A relief knock Rahane brought up his 9th Test ton, his first since October 2016.
The Sri Lanka spinners were flat – four of them conceding 264, and they were further dented by the fact that their lone fast bowler Pradeep left the field due to a pulled hamstring and remains a doubtful contender for the remainder of the match.

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