Birmingham — Cheteshwar Pujara's typically gritty and unbeaten fifty left England facing a tough chase to beat India in the Covid-delayed fifth Test after Jonny Bairstow's latest hundred delighted home fans at Edgbaston on Sunday.
India, 2-1 up in the five-match campaign and looking to complete just a fourth series win in England, were 125-3 in their second innings at stumps on the third day — a lead of 257 runs.
Pujara was exactly 50 not out, having reached the landmark in the last over of the day with a single off part-time spinner Joe Root.
He had faced 139 balls, including seven fours, with Rishabh Pant, fresh from his 146 in India's first-innings 416, unbeaten on 30.
There have been only two successful fourth-innings chases in a Test at Edgbaston during the past 30 years, with South Africa making 283-5 in 2008 and England 211-3 against New Zealand in 1999.
But with England having made reached seemingly stiff targets of 277, 299 and 296 during a recent 3-0 whitewash of Test world champions New Zealand, the outcome of this match is far from guaranteed.
Pujara might not have been playing had regular captain Rohit Sharma (Covid-19) and fellow opener KL Rahul (groin) been fit.
The 34-year-old has gone more than three years without a Test hundred since posting a century against Australia — a drought of 50 innings after he was out for 13 in the first innings at Edgbaston.
Kohli fails again
Star batsman and former India captain Virat Kohli has also endured a barren spell without a Test century since a hundred against Bangladesh at Kolkata in November 2019.
He fought hard to try and end that now 33-innings long sequence while making 20.
But he fell in bizarre fashion when wicketkeeper Sam Billings dropped a routine chance off England captain Ben Stokes only for first slip Joe Root to react quickly in grabbing the rebound.
Earlier, Bairstow's third hundred in successive Tests was the cornerstone of England's 284 that left the hosts 132 runs behind on first innings.
England resumed in the dire position of 84-5, with Bairstow 12 not out.
Yet such was his command he might have had a century before lunch but for rain stopping play 15 minutes before the scheduled interval.
England several times hit their way out of trouble during the New Zealand series — the so-called 'Bazball' approach named in honour of new coach Brendon McCullum's nickname.
Yet for all Bairstow's blazing, if orthodox hitting, he gave himself time to adjust to the bowling and the conditions while making 16 not out off 65 balls. He then accelerated in scoring his next 84 runs off just 54 balls to get to three figures.
The 32-year-old's fifth Test century of 2022 featured 14 fours and two sixes. This hundred followed Bairstow's scores against New Zealand of 136 at Trent Bridge and 162 at Headingley.
But he fell to the persevering Mohammed Shami when an edged drive flew to first slip Kohli.
Stokes, nought not out overnight, made a frantic 25.
Already dropped on 18, when Shardul Thakur floored a routine catch at cover, Stokes was missed again on 25 when stand-in captain Jasprit Bumrah dropped a low chance at mid-off, with Thakur now the unlucky bowler.
But next ball Stokes drove harder and higher, only for Bumrah, diving to his left, to hold a brilliant and far more difficult catch in what is becoming a fine all-round match for the fast bowler.
The tailender had smashed Stuart Broad for 29 in an over costing a total of 35 — the most expensive in Test history.
And by then removing all of England's top three, Bumrah set a new record for most wickets taken by an Indian bowler in a series in England of 21.
This decider should have been played in Manchester last September only to be postponed just hours before the start because of coronavirus concerns within the India camp.