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New Zealand holds nerve in 40-run win

Dhawan ton in vain as Neil Wagner’s four-for breaks India's resistance in first Test

New Zealand holds nerve in 40-run win - Cricket News
Neil Wagner took four wickets, as New Zealand beat India by 40 runs in the first Test.
If the third day had witnessed a fascinatingly crazy procession, the fourth day’s play at Eden Park was gripping, and compellingly so. Fortunes fluctuated wildly as one side grabbed the ascendancy, then the other; eventually, it was New Zealand who landed the sucker punch, completing a nervy, hard-earned, heart-stopping 40-run victory as a brave Indian run chase of 407 was terminated at 366, late on Sunday (February 9) evening.
 
Steve Davis, the umpire, was but one of the principal protagonists on a day when several men cornered attention. Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja kept the Indian challenge going. New Zealand relied solely on its three frontline quicks, with the lion-hearted, indefatigable Neil Wagner leading the charge in the afternoon when Dhawan and Kohli all but took the game away from the home side. Tim Southee had given New Zealand the first breakthrough of the day, and Trent Boult cleaned up the lower half of the innings, Brendon McCullum’s faith in his pace trio eventually bearing fruit.
 
The turning point of the fourth day, and indeed of the Indian run chase? Surely, it must be Kohli’s ill-advised pull from well outside off to Wagner that dribbled off the bottom edge into BJ Watling’s gloves? India was then 222 for 2, Dhawan and Kohli had brought New Zealand to its knees with their sparkling 126-run association. All Kohli needed was to keep his nerve. He had been on edge the preceding 10-15 minutes; maybe, if he had put the pull away to that particular delivery...
 
Surely, it must be Wagner’s wonderful mid-afternoon spell that encompassed 10 hostile, unflagging overs where he charged in ball after ball, over the stumps and round the stumps, bowled short, bowled full, bowled quick and never gave up trying? New Zealand needed a spark as it went flat when Dhawan and Kohli lay into Ish Sodhi. Wagner, as driven and in-your-face as they come, provided that inspiration by first eliciting that loose Kohli stroke, then having Dhawan, well set and in control after his second Test ton, caught behind off a ripper.
 
Oh, wait. What about the first of Davis’s wrong calls, off the first delivery with the second new ball? Boult swung one in to Ajinkya Rahane, who smashed it on to his pad. In a jiffy went Davis’s finger up, at the stroke of tea. As body blows go, that was hard to recover from.
 
But then, it was that kind of a day, a day of multiple moments open to interpretation as decisive. What it was, without any scope for interpretation, was a brilliant day’s Test cricket, marked by excellent defensive batsmanship initially from Dhawan and Kohli after Cheteshwar Pujara’s dismissal inside the first 20 minutes, sustained accuracy and probing lines from New Zealand’s quicks, a thrilling, unexpected riposte from the counter-attacking Dhoni and Jadeja against the second new ball. It had the best of cricket; sadly, it also had the not so best of umpiring, with Davis sticking out as a sore thumb not just on Sunday, but at various stages during the game.
 
The first hour, if not the session, was going to be crucial, it was obvious, when India resumed at 87 for 1. Dhawan and Pujara, having bedded in, looked the part at the start, putting a premium on keeping the ball out and keeping their attacking options away for the time being. Southee and Boult plugged away and New Zealand was rewarded when Pujara was forced to play at a Southee delivery that shaped away late, bounced a little more and caught the splice of the bat on its way to the ‘keeper.
 
New Zealand was delighted -- after all, Pujara is the best equipped of the Indian batsmen to play time – but it was also wary of what lay ahead. Its worst fears nearly came true when Dhawan and Kohli first took their time, gave the first hour to the bowling and then broke free in some style. Kohli took 22 deliveries for his first two runs but effortlessly switched gears while Dhawan, in perhaps his most convincing and crucial international performance, left the ball beautifully outside his offstump, played the bouncer with conviction and focussed more on working the gaps than unleashing the booming strokes.
 
As the partnership grew in proportion, so did the decibel levels of the alarm bells in the New Zealand camp. There was a definite dropping of the shoulders, especially with Sodhi failing to make any impression. Kohli’s wonderful onslaught brooked no reply; apart from one drive off Wagner that aerially split the two short covers employed by McCullum for the uppish drive, nary a false stroke eventuated from his broad blade, and as India ate into the runs, New Zealand started to panic.
 
At 218 for 2, some half hour after lunch, McCullum turned to Wagner, in what was a final throw of the dice. By then, Dhawan had raced to his century with a six and a four off Sodhi, relief and delight evident as he folded his hands together in supplication, and Kohli was well past his 50. India needed commonsense; sadly, the captain-in-waiting failed them as he played the ill-advised pull from well outside off despite Wagner’s left-arm over angle, and put Watling in business.
 
Energised by the breakthrough, Wagner was like a man possessed. He didn’t exactly breathe fire in terms of pace, but he was unrelenting in his determination to make things happen. Rohit Sharma and Dhawan focussed singularly on consolidation and the scoreboard came to a near standstill; only 26 runs were accrued in nearly 14 overs when Wagner produced a snorter out of nowhere, which climbed off a length and burst through to Watling, definitely off Dhawan’s shoulder but not conclusively off any business part that should have elicited an ‘óut’ from Davis.
 
India suddenly was on the back foot, courtesy Wagner’s remarkable burst of 10-3-26-2, and further rocked when Rahane was ruled out by Davis and Rohit fell to the first ball after tea, following Southee to Watling. India had lost 4 for 48 and at 270 for 6, the game was in the bag. Or so New Zealand thought.
 
Then came the counter-attack. Neither Dhoni nor Jadeja is technically the most accomplished, so they chose a brazen, unexpected method – naked aggression. Totally unprepared, New Zealand was rocked. Southee and Boult were powerless as both batsmen used their feet and hit out with abandon. The scoreboard rattled along, the duo putting on 54 in just 34 deliveries when Jadeja holed out to mid-on.

It might have been one stroke too many, but India really had no other option then. Another 10 minutes of that carnage, and India was all but home and dry. Then, strangely, Zaheer Khan had to face 32 of the 42 balls during his association with Dhoni, whose ninth-wicket dismissal, pulling a slower bouncer from Wagner on to his stumps, effectively killed off the spirited, at times spectacular, run chase. Davis had the final say to bring the curtain down on a truly fabulous game of Test cricket, New Zealand glorious in victory but India far from disgraced despite a 10th defeat in their last 11 away Tests.

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