Saturday, May 24, 2014

New Zealand v India, 2nd Test, Basin Reserve, 14 – 18 February 2014: second day

A period of reflection is sometimes appropriate; such is my explanation for the three-month gestation of this report on what became one of the great New Zealand Tests. It still beats Wisden by eleven months. I was there from tea on the first day to the close on the third.

The marketing people get brainier by the day. New Zealand Cricket’s latest wheeze to get people through the gates is to stage an extract from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the start of each international match. Guildenstern—a sensitive performance by Brendon McCullum—tosses a coin. Rosencrantz—MS Dhoni’s interpretation was as moving as any by an Indian captain in a leading role since the Nawab of Pataudi junior’s groundbreaking Hedda Gabler at Headingley in ‘67—calls heads and wins.

That is the most reasonable explanation for law-of-probability-defying run of seven tosses in a row won by the Indian skipper. And a lot of good it has done him. Four defeats and a tie in the ODIs were followed by a 40-run loss in the first Test at Eden Park.

Our inbred pessimism led home supporters to expect payback and it was no surprise to arrive at the Basin at tea on the first afternoon to find New Zealand all out for 192, Ishant Sharma six for 51.

Murali Vijay was out to the last ball of the second over of the reply, unable to get the gloves out of the way of a Southee delivery that came in with extra bounce. The odd play and miss aside, the batsmen looked comfortable and it was a bit of a surprise when Pujara fell leg before to a Boult inswinger just before the end. As often happens when the side bowling second is defending a small total, the New Zealand bowlers were bit anxious and too keen to make things happen rather than concentrating on the basics.

Nightwatchman Ishant Sharma provided the early entertainment on Saturday with shots of pure cock-eyed optimism. The fifty partnership came from 73 deliveries. Southee continues to chip batsmen with the vocabulary of a bowler ten kph faster than he actually is; Sharma will have made a note of Southee’s view of his bouncer-avoiding technique, which finished with the batsman flat on his back in the crease. Sharma was caught behind off Boult trying to repeat a cover drive for four.

At the other end, opener Shikhar Dhawan was showing why the Australian writer Chloe Saltau had recently picked him in her World XI. He cuts like a Savile Row tailor. However, it was still perplexing a couple of months later to open Wisden to find that Dhawan was one of the Almanack’s five Cricketers of the Year. The choice of the five is made on their performance in the previous English season, so how did Dhawan win in a year in which Australia and New Zealand toured? I had forgotten all about the Champions Trophy, which is easy to do. He had wowed Wisden editor Lawrence Booth with a couple of dashing centuries in the group stage, but it is still cricket’s least-merited accolade since Paul Collingwood’s seven-run MBE in 2005. The other four Cricketers of the Year were Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers, Joe Root, and Charlotte Edwards. It is a measure of how the three-nil result in the 2013 Ashes failed to reflect the narrow gap in talent between the two sides that two Australians and only one Englishman are named (though the fact that no one can be a Cricketer of the Year more than once may have influenced this too). It used to be the case that one of the five would be a county stalwart. I commend Darren Stevens to you, young Booth.

Here, Dhawan was out two short of a century, edging a Southee outswinger to Watling. Rohit Sharma soon followed for a duck to become Jimmy Neesham’s first Test wicket off as poor a ball as the debutant will ever take one with, a wide half volley that Sharma dragged on. At 165 for five a degree of parity had been restored, but India’s new hero, Virat Kohli, was in.

Kohli was fluent until succoured by a McCullum ruse. Neil Wagner maintained a line a couple of feet wide of off stump with two short extra covers. For some time Kohli resisted, but the apple was too big and juicy and the first time he tried to take a bite Rutherford, the straighter of the two fielders in the trap, took the catch.

MS Dhoni joined Ajinkya Rahane at the crease with both preferring to accrue through boundaries. At mid-afternoon drinks 28 of Rahane’s 38 had come that way, and Dhoni had hit the first four balls of the preceding over for four. A sensible bowler would have stayed quiet and tried to blend in with the surroundings, but Wagner continued to chip the Indian captain, and made himself look mightily stupid by doing so.

The advent of the new ball after tea merely accelerated the scoring rate. New Zealand’s only idea seemed to be to feed Dhoni’s ramp shot in the hope that he might feather one. So it was a surprise when Dhoni fell to a short ball from Boult that he could easily have left alone. This brought in Ravindra Jadeja, a Test No 9 with three first-class triple centuries to his name.

Jadeja showed no inclination to dig in or run singles and greeted Wagner’s return to the attack by sending the first two deliveries to the boundary, the second impishly between slip and gully. He was caught at second slip off the following ball, all but two of his 26 coming from boundaries.

Rahane was now ten short of his maiden Test century and will not have been reassured by the entrance at No 10 of Zaheer Khan, a batsman unable to pass a swash without attempting to buckle it. Predictably enough he attempted to send the second ball he received down the Mt Victoria Tunnel. Rahane met the situation calmly, upping the tempo without risk and two overs later pulled Anderson to the mid-wicket boundary to join the centurions. With a hooked six he brought up Wagner’s century a little later, from a mere 22 overs.

Earlier that over Wagner thought that he had bowled Zaheer, only for a replay to show that he had no-balled by cutting the return crease with his left foot (he was bowling round the wicket). My seat high in the Vance Stand looked right down the line of the violated crease and I am sure that he was bowling one or two no balls an over in this manner, so had no sympathy for him. Did Wagner shut up? He did not.

It took a piece of fielding as classy as the innings itself to dismiss Rahane. Boult sprinted in from the cover boundary and dived full length, scooping the ball one-handed an inch from the turf. It contends with Boult’s own flying leap to dismiss Denesh Ramdin at the Basin late last year as catch of the season.

Another flurry of eyes-shut slogging from Zaheer took India to a final score of 438, a lead of 236 with more than three days still to go. As Fulton and Rutherford came to the crease it was the nature of the defeat that was being debated; would India have to bat again?; would play go beyond the third day? The fact of defeat was no more worthy of debate than the setting of the sun.

Peter Fulton lasted only into the second over when he padded up to a Zaheer Khan inswinger. The raised finger of umpire Steve Davis cued a lot of rot from the radio commentary box, where it was agreed that the decision was a travesty. Firstly, had the decision review system been in operation it would have supported the decision by showing the ball clipping the off stump. Secondly, any opening batsman padding up to a swing bowler of Zaheer’s pedigree is asking for all the trouble that comes to him. It was further evidence that, for all the heroism of Eden Park last year, Peter Fulton does not have what it takes as a Test opener.

Rutherford and Williamson shepherded New Zealand to the close, but the football fans present consoled themselves with the thought that on the morrow they would be able to watch the rest of the Test and be in their seats at the Cake Tin as the Pheonix kicked off at 5 pm. If you had told us that the game was almost 72 hours away from a finish we would have called an ambulance for you, and probably the police as well.

To be continued.

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