Cheteshwar Pujara is not on strike. Yet, somehow, he is now going to find a way to run himself out. And because he is Cheteshwar Pujara, also simultaneously end all hopes of India winning/drawing this Test match in Centurion. For Pujara and more so for India, such was this day; such was this Test.
In the first innings, India’s most reliable batsman in the toughest format of the game, Pujara, had committed a most out-of-character blunder. A suicide, if you may. Of the very first ball he faced, he had flicked the ball straight to the fielder at mid-on and set off on a run. Now, Pujara is rather used to spending hours at the crease without worrying about his score, if the situation demands it. Yet, here, on the second day of the Centurion Test, he faced all of one delivery and looked to manically, uncharacteristically get to the other end. He was run out, of course, and India ended up conceding a 28-run first innings lead that they perhaps wouldn’t have had he not attempted that run.
Today, Wednesday, the fifth day of the Centurion Test, the situation called for even more level-headedness. India, after all, were looking to save the match, a difficulty level that Pujara’s batting style was programmed to deal with. When he had walked in to bat at the end of Day Four, with the score on 11/1, running hard between the wickets to chase down the 287-run target could have been the order-of-the-hour. But by this morning, that hour, and many more, had passed. No one, apparently, had told Pujara that.
It is now the 27th of the innings and Parthiv Patel, better known as Rohit Sharma’s human-shield, is on strike. The score is 47/4 and this is the first ball of the new Philander over. Patel guides the ball wide of gully and to third man and the two batsmen set off for two runs. At the boundary rope, Lungi Ngidi throws in a dive and sweeps the ball back into play with his large hands. By this time, Pujara has completed the second run by reaching the non-striker’s end – a vantage point from where he, and not Patel, can see that the ball has been picked up by AB de Villiers, a man with a bullet arm anywhere on the field.
Pujara, if you must know, does not have bullet legs; far from it. Yet, he chooses to take on de Villiers’s throw to the ‘keeper and attempt a fatal third run. This, when runs had nearly ceased to matter to the Indian team. This, when he is perhaps the slowest runner between the wickets in the Indian team. Maybe even world cricket. Pujara is run out despite his dive. The South Africans are in rip roaring happiness. And why not? If getting Virat Kohli’s wicket the previous evening had ensured that India could not win this match, Pujara’s fall had all but ascertained that India would not be able to save it either.
Less than two hours after this moment, India had lost the match, bowled out for 151, and had conceded the three-match series by going 0-2 down. Pujara’s twin run outs may not have been the only reason for India’s sufferance at Centurion, but they sure were the turning points on the respective days that they occurred. “I can accept defeats, but such incidents (Pujara’s run outs) that allowed the situation to get out of grasp is not acceptable,” Virat Kohli would later say in the press conference.
Pujara’s absence also hurt India because he was the only Indian batsman who seemed comfortable while facing Lungi Ngidi. On the fourth evening of this game as Ngidi, the tall and strong debutant in the South African ranks and all of 21 years old, terrorised the likes of Kohli and KL Rahul, Pujara had found a way to first survive and later see off the terrific quick. On the fifth day, he was dismissed before Ngidi even came on to bowl.
Post-Pujara and to get the wickets column ticking, Ngidi removed the dangerous Hardik Pandya from the equation with a snorter of a ball in just his second over of the morning. Thereon, the rest was easy work. Next over, Ravichandran Ashwin was nicked off to the ‘keeper first ball and Ngidi found himself on the verge of a five-for on debut, which he promptly collected with the dismissal of a wildly swinging Mohammed Shami. Ngidi pumped his chest and folded his hands, and soon – with figures of 6/39 — folded up the Indian side.
Brief scores: Centurion, Day 5 – India 151 all out in 50.2 overs (R Sharma 47, M Shami 28, P Patel 19; L Ngidi 6/39, K Rabada 3/47) lost to South Africa 335 & 258 by 135 runs.