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Pujara, Rahane fifties save India the blushes

Wisden India logo Wisden India 30-09-2016
© AP Photo

On a day of hard graft, the old-fashioned virtues of seeing out the tough spells and cashing in when the bowlers tired kept India afloat, but the ones piloting the ship at Eden Gardens were the New Zealanders.

The first day of India’s second Test against New Zealand ended with the home team on 239 for 7 in 86 overs. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had battled through with a 141-run stand to lift the team from the depths of 46 for 3. But important wickets in the last session had New Zealand smiling again. At stumps, Wriddhiman Saha was batting on 14 with Ravindra Jadeja yet to open his account.

The morning of Friday (September 30) brought bad news for New Zealand, with Kane Williamson ruled out of the match and the captaincy reins handed over to Ross Taylor. As if losing their best batsman wasn’t enough, their luck with the toss didn’t change either, with the coin falling Virat Kohli’s way once again. But as they had shown in the first Test, this was not a side that was going to roll over and accept defeat, no matter the odds stacked against them.

Scores (Day 1): India: 239/7 against New Zealand

New Zealand had included three pacers in their XI, and the wisdom of bringing Matt Henry in became apparent when he swung the ball at pace while maintaining excellent lines to nip out India’s openers. The newly relaid pitch at Eden Gardens provided disconcerting bounce and carry with the hard, new ball, and that meant the batsmen had to be extra watchful.

Both Trent Boult and Henry asked questions of the batsmen, and they shared in the initial breakthroughs that gave India the wobbles, before the returning Jeetan Patel (2 for 66) – possibly still jet-lagged after having landed barely 24 hours before the toss – made key strikes in the final session.

Had it not been for Pujara (87) and Rahane (77), India’s situation would have been worse than dire, with no one else in the top six hitting double figures.

© AFP Photo

Pujara had walked in as early as in the second over, Shikhar Dhawan not grabbing the opportunity to reclaim his spot in KL Rahul’s injury-enforced absence to chop one on to the stumps. But it wasn’t until Rahane joined Pujara in the 22nd over that any stability was achieved. Pujara, whose strike-rate had first been questioned by Virat Kohli and then defended by Anil Kumble, wisely played the situation and the ball rather than indulging in any point-scoring.

There has been a vein of ‘gung-ho-ness’ to India’s pronouncements on the field in recent times, but gung-ho cricket is what got India into a hole. To climb out of it, they needed the calm heads of Pujara and Rahane, who provided the home team with their best batting phase of the day, keeping New Zealand wicket-less in the second session.

But the visiting team began well and ended well, thus coming out with the lion’s share of the honours on the first day. After Henry got Dhawan, he produced the delivery of the day to send back M Vijay. Henry bowled on a length angling in, before the ball pitched and moved away after bouncing. No batsman would have been immune to getting an edge, and though Vijay had shown exemplary concentration and timing during his brief stay, he had to depart.

Kohli’s dismissal would have given the New Zealanders a lot of satisfaction in seeing a plan that worked coming off. When Kohli walked in, Neil Wagner was bowling and the left-arm pacer kept it short to the Indian captain from over the wicket. That was the line that had seen Kohli’s downfall in the first innings of the first Test, but the batsman controlled the urge to hit out well. Wagner bowled nine balls to Kohli, none of them in the last third of the pitch. When Boult came back on, a full and wide delivery outside off was sent screaming to the fence. Two balls later, Boult pulled the line wider and the length a mite shorter, and as has often been the case, Kohli tried to reach for the ball. It was a low-percentage shot at the best of times, and with the carry the pitch afforded, the ball took the edge and flew to Tom Latham at gully, who pulled off a diving catch.

© AFP Photo

That brought India’s best batting phase of the day, with Pujara and Rahane showing the rest how it was done. Crucially, both men were content to remain runless and didn’t display the impatience that led to Kohli’s downfall. The need of the hour was to stem the fall of wickets, and both men did that beautifully, concentrating hard, watching the ball, and not getting suckered into shots.

There was one moment of weakness from Rahane on 33, when he skied Patel in the 51st over half an hour before tea, but Doug Bracewell couldn’t run back quickly enough from mid-on and only got a hand to the chance after diving. But that apart, both men were sublime as 57 for 3 at lunch became 136 for 3 at tea.

Post-tea though, it all started to unravel for India, though the session began on a positive note for them. Pujara and Rahane began hitting the gaps and playing their strokes more freely and 51 runs had come in the first 11 overs of the last session when Wagner’s persistence paid off. Bowling with a ring of offside fielders, Wagner finally got Pujara to hit one straight to Martin Guptill at short leg in the 70th over.

As is often the case at Eden Gardens, the game picked up pace in the final hour, and India went from 187 for 3 to 231 for 7. Patel, who kept the batsmen on their toes, had Rohit Sharma inside-edging to short leg before striking a body blow to India’s hopes of a long tail-end resistance with Rahane trapped on the back foot by a quicker one that caught him in front of the stumps.

Henry was slightly fortunate to get R Ashwin lbw with one that might have missed leg, but was then unfortunate to be denied Jadeja’s wicket with one that would have cannoned into middle stump.

He had 3 for 35 when the umpires ruled that the light had become too bad to continue, leaving the Test poised for a potentially enthralling second day.

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