Needing 407 for victory after skittling New Zealand in its second innings, India end the third day on 87 for 1
A Test match that seemed inexorably headed only one way was back in the balance after a most dramatic day’s cricket at Eden Park which produced 264 runs and 17 wickets.
Wickets tumbled like ninepins on the middle day of the first Test, by the end of which New Zealand still had its noses well in front but India wasn’t entirely without hope. Chasing 407 for an unlikely victory after its bowlers had cut a swathe through the New Zealand second innings, India rediscovered its batting shoes to dance its way to 87 for 1 at stumps on Saturday (February 8), 320 shy of its target with two full days to play.
Resuming on 130 for 4 in reply to New Zealand’s 503, India was rolled over for 202 to concede a potentially decisive deficit of 301. New Zealand chose to bat on and set a target well in excess of 500, but could manage no more than 105, keeling over without resistance as India’s bowlers, led by Mohammed Shami, raised its game and the fielding touching dizzy heights.
Brendon McCullum put Shikhar Dhawan down at short cover in just the second over of the chase. It was a significant moment; Dhawan has had a poor tour, and had lasted just three deliveries in the first innings. He had already led a charmed life before New Zealand’s captain dropped him, and for a while after the let-off, he continued to chance his arm, living most dangerously.
He looked the most likely to be dismissed but it was the fluent M Vijay who went in unfortunate fashion, caught down the legside off the faintest of edges trying to glance Tim Southee. Dhawan, the better off for time in the middle, slowly found his feet by the time the evening advanced and the sun was enveloped in dark clouds. With Cheteshwar Pujara providing solid, unflustered company, Dhawan came through a stern test unscathed. For India to make any dents into the substantial target, Dhawan and Pujara must build in the first session on day four, a session that could decide which way the pendulum settles.
The first five hours of the day were a microcosm of the best, and worst, of Test cricket. It was an unendingly gripping passage of play, of the blink-and-you-miss-it variety, as the ball held total sway despite there being very few demons in the pitch. India played poorly first up when it resumed on 130 for 4, then New Zealand was blown away by the persistence of India’s quicks and Ravindra Jadeja’s brilliance on the park.
New Zealand must have had its reasons for not enforcing the follow-on, like it didn’t against England at the same venue last March, and against West Indies in Dunedin in December – both those games ended in draws, the second after the weather intervened – but it was hard to see why. After all, India’s first innings had lasted just 60 overs in all and 21 on the third morning, and the lead was a healthy 301.
India, perhaps counting itself fortunate not to be stuck in again, responded admirably with the ball, sustaining the intensity for the entire duration of the New Zealand second innings which only lasted a little over three hours and 41 overs. There is no gainsaying what the state of the game would be now had it bowled thus 48 hours back; India again made early inroads but where they let New Zealand get away in the first innings, it didn’t take the foot off the throat this time around.
Shami did the damage first up, finally being rewarded for effort and discipline, but India was also brilliantly served by the excellence in the field of Jadeja, who had warmed up for the day’s labours with a gritty unbeaten 30 in the morning. The support they had lacked in the field on Thursday available now, India’s bowlers were far more effective with improved lengths and a probing line. New Zealand showed that it were as vulnerable, even in familiar conditions, as its opponents when tough questions were asked consistently.
Shami winkled out Hamish Rutherford in his first over and Peter Fulton in his next. Zaheer Khan then got into the act with the wicket of Kane Williamson, but that was as much the fielder’s scalp as the bowler’s.
Williamson went back to work Zaheer to leg, the ball sat on the pitch a bit and flew uppishly in the direction of midwicket. Jadeja, positioned at short midwicket, took a couple of steps to his right, flung himself fully and came up with a right-handed catch, a stunning effort that further lifted the Indian spirits.
Those spirits dropped momentarily when McCullum was put down at first slip by Vijay. The ball swerved into the fielder late but that was definitely no excuse for evading his hands and clanging him on the chest. But McCullum didn’t make the most of his good fortune, running himself out almost immediately even though Jadeja’s role in the dismissal couldn’t be exaggerated.
Ross Taylor played Zaheer to square leg and set off, and McCullum called him through for a second. Jadeja ate up ground like Usain Bolt, slid and picked up the ball, and rifled it towards the non-striker’s end. Ishant Sharma, backing up, took the ball beautifully on the half volley and broke the stumps to leave the first-innings double-centurion well short, and New Zealand on the ropes at 15 for 4 after a crazy first session.
India kept picking up wickets in the second, with only Taylor’s experience preventing a complete rout. Ishant complemented Shami and Zaheer excellently while the fielding too was of the highest order. Ajinkya Rahane plucked another gem at gully to send Taylor packing and dash any hopes of a stirring rearguard action.
Taylor and BJ Watling put on 38, the only partnership of note until Boult and Wagner added 25 for the last, but India didn’t allow the tail to wag. Ishant, brought back for a second spell, cleaned up the lower order and not long after tea, New Zealand’s grand designs of setting India a mammoth target had been emphatically thwarted even if India still was asked to mount the highest successful chase on New Zealand soil.
All this, after India’s first innings had lasted just over 100 minutes in the morning. The first hour was going to be crucial; Rohit Sharma and Rahane had no option but to knuckle down and grind it out if India was to get anywhere near New Zealand’s 503, but both were back in the hut inside the first 25 minutes to what could at best be termed poor strokes. Rahane drove distantly at Southee to put first slip in business while Rohit, who had batted with such composure and authority the previous evening, made little allowance for Boult’s inswing. Attempting an expansive drive away from his body, he watched the ball duck back in, take inside edge and crash on to the stumps to open the door for New Zealand. As it turned out, India’s 6 for 72 in the morning was not to be the only collapse of stunning proportions on a most enthralling day of Test cricket.