Monday, November 22, 2010

India v New Zealand: Once More into the Valley of Death

And it was all going so well. After two Test matches in the current series in India, New Zealand supporters, exiled for so long in the dark vale of batting collapse and follow ons, found themselves transported to the sunny uplands of centuries, wickets and—no, not victory, that would be more excitement than was good for us—of honourable draws. What’s more, New Zealand were well-placed to win had either game gone into a sixth day.

But, as we all expected, it’s all gone wrong at Nagpur, venue for the deciding third Test. As I write India lead by 250 with five wickets standing, wondering when they’ll have enough to declare and not have to bat again, while everybody here thinks they passed that mark fifty runs ago. Rahul Dravid (once of Kent) is batting like cream being poured over fresh strawberries.

Let us walk away from the scene of the crash and reflect on what went right at Ahmedabad and Hyderabad before we become convinced that it was all a dream.

The success of the batting was particularly pleasing. For a couple of years that’s where the real talent of the team has lain, but it has rarely delivered. So far in this series there have been four centuries by different batsmen.

In the second Test the odd couple, Tim McIntosh and Brendon McCullum, put on the first century partnership for the first wicket for New Zealand for more than six years, a measure of how bad things have been. McIntosh bagged a pair in the first Test, and might have been dropped. He has the happy knack of scoring runs in these circumstances, and produced his best Test innings, with a sound rearguard 49 to follow. He kept the score ticking over better than he has done in the past, though having McCullum at the other end reduces the pressure in this respect.

Ever since I saw McCullum score a fine hundred for New Zealand under-19s against South Africa at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth almost ten years ago (it was his third in successive games)...
...I have felt that he would become a successful top-order Test batsman (ODIs are another matter; I still think he may be more valuable in the finisher role at six or seven). He was praised for curbing his attacking instincts during his match-saving double century at Hyderabad, yet still moved along with a strike rate of 75 (four-and-a-half an over in old money), which is hardly laggardly. He passed 200 with a T20 scoop shot, probably a first for Test cricket.

Kane Williamson’s debut hundred was all efficiency and temperament. He bats like a mathematician solving a complicated equation and the pleasure of watching him rests as much in the knowledge of the runs that he will score in the years to come as in those that he is scoring now.

But it is Jesse Ryder that most pleases the eye. He reminds me of Colin Cowdrey, at the crease at least, and that is high praise from this source. So much time, and a large form moving with such grace. It becomes clear why New Zealand cricket has been so patient with him. He’s not in great shape (I know this because he’s much the same shape as me) and batted with a runner for some of his century in the first Test, which put me in mind of Guardian football writer David Lacey’s comment on the selection of a half-fit Paul Gascoigne: “the manager clearly took the view that half an oaf was better than none”.

Less is expected of the bowling, so taking 20 wickets on Ahmedabad’s flat track was the best of all these achievements, Chris Martin a revelation. Martin is one of those bowlers who always appears to be bowling into the wind, and at the age of 36 there are times when it has seemed to have risen to a force ten gale. Yet in the second innings he produced an opening spell that was pure Glenn McGrath, 135kph bowling that troubled the batsman as if it were 15 kph faster, probing lines and steep bounce. India were 15 for five at one point.

New Zealand’s undoing has come in the improbable form of the batting of Harbajan Singh, who has registered his three highest Test scores during the series, including two hundreds. He is the Errol Flynn of the crease, taking on all comers fearlessly, erasing the invisible line that separates bravery from stupidity, the outcome pre-determined. Exciting, yes, but also (and I hope that this does not come across as ungracious) staggeringly lucky. Mark Richardson pointed on TV that New Zealand has form in the matter of allowing lower-order batsmen to rise above their station. In support he cited Warne, McGrath, Gillespie, Jerome Taylor, and Geraint Jones, which is a bit harsh on Kent’s current No 3.

In coming weeks I shall be writing on the Ashes, as there are only three million Ashes blogs and the world deserves another one.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...