September 27, 2016 2:28:07 am
The end came at 12:52 pm. As Ravichandran Ashwin pitched one on the off-stump line, the left-handed Neil Wagner plonked his front-foot forward, looking to defend what he thought was the stock off-spinner. It turned the other way, sneaking between his bat and pad and catching the back leg plumb in front. New Zealand were all out for 236 and India completed a comprehensive 197-run win in their 500th Test match and the first of a long home season. Ashwin finished with 6-132 in the innings and 10-225 for the match.
The rate at which Ashwin is picking wickets is frightening. It was his 19th five-wicket haul in 37 Tests. Anil Kumble had 35 in 132 Test matches. Kapil Dev 23 in 131. It was also his fifth ten-wicket-in-a-match performance, just three behind Kumble and level with Harbhajan Singh, who has played 103 Test matches. Staunch critics may scoff at his records, saying a bulk of his wickets of late have come on rank turners. Well, Green Park was more a traditional Indian pitch, by no means unplayable.
Still, the Tamil Nadu off-spinner steamrolled over New Zealand despite a painful corn on the middle finger of his bowling hand. “This game especially, I have a corn on my finger and I haven’t bowled a lot in the last 25 days. I’m not very happy with the way it has come out so far. I just hope that I can do better in the series,” he said after Day Four.
That carrom ball that he bowled to Wagner, therefore, wasn’t not only a variation but a necessity as well. In the previous over, he had clean bowled Ish Sodhi with a seam-up delivery that looked like a carrom ball but went straight. His other victim of the day, Mitchell Santner, was done in by an off-spinner that spun and bounced viciously from the rough outside leg and squared up the left-hander.
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“He’s been outstanding for the Indian team,” captain Virat Kohli said after the match. “If you see all the impact players in the world, he comes in the top three-four easily. Bowlers are the ones I feel that win you Test matches and Ashwin is one of them. He’s a very keen thinker of the game. It’s priceless to have a cricketer like Ashwin in your Test team. He gives (the team) balance with both bat and ball.”
You would have expected, then, that Ashwin would be the Man of the Match, but this Indian team is full of contenders. It was Ashwin’s partner-in-crime Ravindra Jadeja who got the award. He not only took six wickets in the match, but also scored crucial runs in both the innings: a 50 not out in the second, but more critically a 41 not out in the first that helped India secure a vital lead.
If Ashwin finished the job on Monday, it was Jadeja’s dismissal of Luke Ronchi that was the beginning of the end. The nimble-footed Ronchi had looked the best player of spin on either side. With Santner, he added 102 runs for the fifth wicket as New Zealand defied the Indian spinners for the first hour. With dark clouds hovering above, and Green Park’s drainage facilities shoddy at best, India must have had some nervous moments. Will it be a draw? Did they declare too late?
It was then that the tireless Jadeja induced a fall shot off Ronchi’s blade. The Australian-born New Zealander looked to sweep Jadeja against the turn, but could only top-edge. India were ecstatic. It was against the run of play, and it illustrated the team’s patience and resolve when the things weren’t going their way. They had done it in the first innings, too, when Ashwin broke the 124-run second wicket stand between Kane Williamson and Tom Latham.
“Obviously teams are going to resist you,” Kohli said. “You’re playing against world-class sides. It’s Test cricket at the highest level. The only thing we collectively decided was that we will take a learning out of this. There will be runs scored, there will be partnerships, but it’s how we come back that will define our character. Going through a difficult situation is very important for us to become better players…What I’ve learnt in few matches that I have been captain is that you have to have patience.”
India showed both application and bouncebackability with bat, too. If Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay were rock solid at the top, scoring four half-centuries between them, the lower-middle order and tail displayed resilience after a flurry of wickets. Rohit Sharma did throw his wicket away in the first, but scored a confident unbeaten 68 in the second. He will create a selection dilemma ahead of the second Test as India will be tempted to play an extra bowler on a track that is batting-friendly.
“You obviously have to strengthen your batting on a wicket that might go 50-50. You never know, the game can slip away very quickly. And the extra batsman helped, I mean Rohit got runs in the second innings, pretty solid with Jadeja… Kolkata might not be as slow or turn as much as Kanpur did. We know Kolkata is a much better batting wicket, so we can afford to maybe play an extra bowler there, you never know,” he hinted.
Kohli’s decision to play two spinners and two seamers in Kanpur had come under scrutiny on Day One. Many though he included an extra paceman in Mohammad Shami when India could have fielded leg-spinner Amit Mishra. For large parts of the game, the pacers were anonymous. But ahead of lunch on Day five, Shami bowled a spell that underlined a threat the visiting teams in India tend to overlook as they are preoccupied with spin: reverse swing.
With the old, scruffed-up SG ball in his hand, Shami looked nigh unplayable. BJ Watling, one of the toughest batsmen in the New Zealand team, was stitching together a partnership with Santner when Shami got one to swing back and rap him on the pads in front of the wicket. Then he came around and broke the defences and stumps of the left-hander Mark Craig. Ashwin then ran through the rest. It was reminiscent of Umesh Yadav’s fiery spell against South Africa in Delhi last year where he broke the partnership between AB de Villiers and Dane Villas, and broke the camel’s back.
“…Two crucial wickets by Shami in the second innings, first breakthrough by Umesh in the first – it makes a massive difference. Those things also are important moments in the game,” said Kohli, savouring the eighth win of his nascent captaincy career.
All boxes appeared to have been ticked, expect one. It was the fifth successive time at home when Virat won the toss. There are 12 more matches to go at home. How the Indian team will fare when he loses will be interesting to see.
So same, yet so different
Despite the home team’s big win in the first Test, India and New Zealand mirror each other in many, many aspects.
India: Batted for 97 overs in their first innings. Murali Vijay faced the most number of balls (340) in the match. Four batsmen—Vijay & Cheteshwar Pujara twice each, Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja—scored half-centuries across both innings. India’s top 7 faced 507 deliveries in their first innings.
New Zealand: Batted for 95.5 overs in their first innings. Mitchell Santner faced the second-most balls in the match with 287. Four Kiwis—Santner, Kane Williamson, Tom Latham and Luke Ronchi—scored half-centuries. New Zealand’s top 7 faced 565 deliveries in their first innings.
India: On Day 5, Shami removed Watling and Craig off consecutive deliveries with a masterclass on reverse swing with the old ball. Umesh Yadav drew first blood in the Kiwis’ first innings by trapping Guptill and was a constant threat with the old ball when the visitors batted to save the match.
New Zealand: Trent Boult bowled an inspired spell late on the opening day to knock out the dangerous lower-order, removing Wriddhiman Saha, Ashwin and Mohammed Shami in the space of nine balls and derail India’s first innings. Neil Wagner can always take pride from having taken out the Indian captain with a quick bouncer on a lifeless pitch.
Spinners who bat
India: In addition to sharing the spoils with the ball, Ashwin and Jadeja also produced crucial cameos when it mattered most with the bat. Ashwin’s fluent 40 and a 54-run stand with Rohit in the first innings steadied the ship after a wobble. It was Jadeja who then turned the game firstly with a brisk 42 in a 41-run stand for the last wicket before smashing a 58-ball 50 as India looked to set a target.
New Zealand: Santner faced 149 balls of Indian spin in the match. And he just didn’t survive but looked amongst the most adept Kiwi batsmen against Ashwin and Jadeja. Batting at No.6, the slender left-hander forged vital partnerships with wicket-keeper Ronchi in the middle-order to ensure the Kiwis didn’t crumble completely in both innings. He also showcased his strokeplay against spin, hitting two sixes in his 179-ball 71.
Strugglers: Rohit, Guptill
India: Rohit Sharma averaged 32.62 in 18 Tests before Kanpur and his place in the side was in question. The game was all but sewed up by the time he scored an unencumbered 68 in the second innings but his innocuous dismissal in the first innings could well get more focus.
New Zealand: Guptill averaged 29.59 in 44 Tests before Kanpur. Even his borrowed time seems to be coming to an end after a scratchy 21 in the first innings and an ugly dismissal for 0 on Day 4.
Long spin spells
India: Ashwin and Jadeja ended up bowling 136.2 overs in all at Kanpur. They picked up 16/356 at 22.25 apiece on a pitch that demanded patience and wasn’t a rank-turner like the ones they were offered against the hapless Proteas last year.
New Zealand: All the New Zealand spinners—Santner, Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig—held their own, bowling 137.2 overs overall. Though collective figures of 10/461 at 46.1 apiece might not read too well, none of them was hit out of the attack and demanded respect.
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