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India lose the plot after Vijay-Pujara show

Wisden India logo Wisden India 22-09-2016

The morning dawned as one in which India kept a tryst with history – playing their 500th Test, becoming only the fourth team to do so. Kane Williamson called wrong at the toss, and India had the advantage of batting first in their landmark Test. At the start of the first day at Green Park, India looked as though they might turn the luck of the coin into a mountainous first-innings total. But a resilient New Zealand side that didn’t give up even when M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara were progressing with the serenity of gently flowing water found rewards in the second half to keep the home team to 291 for 9 at stumps on Thursday (September 22). Ravindra Jadeja (16 not out) and Umesh Yadav, batting on 8, were holding fort at the end and ensured India weren’t bowled out on the first day of the series.

That India had gone into this first Test of a three-game series with six batsmen seemed a defensive move at the outset. And given the cracks on the Green Park pitch, R Ashwin would have been expected to play a large role. Eventually, even six batsmen proved almost too few and Ashwin’s batting had to be pressed into service for India before his bowling. Ashwin’s 40 was the third highest score of the innings, during the course of which India’s leading Test wicket-taker of 2016 also became their leading run-scorer, and went some way towards averting a total collapse after Pujara (62) and Vijay (65) had seen the excellent platform they set up squandered.

India were riding the crest of a wave at 154 for 1 in the 49th over, but one wicket was all it took for New Zealand’s bowlers to swarm all over the batsmen, showing that the adage ‘it’s not how well but you start but how well you finish’ held true for the first day’s play at least. Mitchell Santner had 3 for 77, and broke the most crucial stands, but the efforts of Mark Craig (1 for 59), Neil Wagner (1 for 42) and Trent Boult (3 for 57) were equally commendable.

The morning began with KL Rahul unleashing the gorgeous drives and punches that have seen him gather runs by the sackful across formats in the past season. Boult was driven down the ground and stroked through the covers for two boundaries in the first over. A little later, there was a steer and a push that was gentle but still raced to the boundary. Boult and Wagner had asked some questions off the opening pair of Vijay and Rahul – India expectedly benched Shikhar Dhawan and went in with a four-man attack of Ashwin, Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Yadav – but the batsmen were more than equal to the task.

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Vijay was his usual self, taking time to bed in, while Rahul seemed to want to establish dominance early. That is what led to his downfall eventually. Spin was introduced in the ninth over through Santner, and in the left-arm spinner’s second over, Rahul was done in by a quicker one that wasn’t there to be cut. A thin edge was snapped by BJ Watling behind the stumps and on his way back for 32 in just 39 balls, Rahul would have felt he had squandered a start. It didn’t hurt India though, with Pujara and Vijay taking control.

Pujara was sure-footed against the three spinners – the visitors going for five bowlers and adding Luke Ronchi instead of Henry Nicholls among the batsmen – and repeatedly danced down the wicket. He was the busier of the two batsmen in a 112-run stand that spanned 37.4 overs, catching up and then keeping pace with Vijay’s score. While Pujara was all perfect placement and great judgment, Vijay’s timing was exquisite throughout his innings.

Vijay got a lot of his runs in the third-man to cover region, with cuts, late-cuts and drives flowing as if gently caressed. Pujara perhaps wasn’t as much of a geometry enthusiast’s delight, but he was no less impressive. Dancing down the pitch forced the spinners to shorten their lengths on occasion, and then Pujara unfurled the forceful square-cuts.

At 105 for 1 at the lunch break, India were looking ominous. New Zealand could be accused of not maintaining as much discipline in their bowling as was possible, but to an extent, the batsmen also forced the errors, both reaching half-centuries within minutes of each other and looking set for a lot more. It took an uncharacteristic dismissal to change the complexion of the innings, Pujara chipping one back to Santner against the run of play.

One wicket brought several. Virat Kohli had walked out to a rapturous ovation that only increased in volume when two boundaries were hit. But Wagner got the next short ball much closer to the body, and Kohli couldn’t resist having another go. It only resulted in a top-edged catch to fine-leg. A little later, Vijay tried to cut an Ish Sodhi delivery that wasn’t short enough for Watling to pouch a second sharp catch. With both set batsmen and the captain gone, India’s 185 for 4 at tea looked distinctly less comfortable. 

Ajinkya Rahane was undone by an excellent ball from Craig that drew him forward and took the edge to bat-pad, and Craig was extremely unlucky to not get Rohit Sharma when the batsman was on 19. The offspinner had come round the wicket, perhaps raising doubts about the ball pitching outside leg-stump, but struck Rohit plumb in front. The batsman couldn’t capitalise though, falling to the worst shot of the day, going through with a lofted drive without getting to the pitch of the ball and holing out off Santner. That ended a 52-run stand with Ashwin that had raised hopes of a revival.

The second new ball had been taken as soon as it was available, and Boult showed his class. He castled Wriddhiman Saha with a peach that crashed in through bat and pad, and was too good for Shami.

With close to 300 on the board, India still have a reasonable total on a pitch that is expected to aid spin more and more as the game progresses, but New Zealand’s magnificent spirit has ensured that this is far from the one-sided contest it threatened to be in the first half of the day.

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