Losing the toss on brownish track is painful. Losing it when you have already lost your regular skipper and best batsman, Kane Williamson, hurts more. But to their credit, the visitors finished Day One stronger with India struggling at 239/7.
About an hour and half after he had won the toss, Virat Kohli was back on the pitch. With openers Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay out inside 12 overs, Kohli needed to justify the decision to bat first.
True to the curators’ prediction, the ball was doing a significant bit and the variable bounce was making things difficult for the batters. Matt Henry’s back of a length delivery kept a little low as Dhawan chopped it on to his stumps. In the previous over, New Zealand keeper BJ Watling had to jump full length to collect a Trent Boult delivery that was pitched up. Vijay nicked a Henry outswinger that he had to play but the spectators didn’t mind. The star attraction of Indian batting was at the crease.
This New Zealand team has a definite plan for Kohli. First, they try to cramp him for room and denying him quick singles. Then suddenly they try to induce him to play an expansive shot. They ploy worked at Kanpur, and in Kolkata too.
It’s the kind of a delivery that Wasim Akram would regularly try out. First, peg the batsmen down with his benders on the stumps, before hurling one full and wide. Sensing a chance to release pressure, the batsmen would go at it, and Ijaz Ahmed at point or Salim Malik at gully would gobble up the greedy mistake. This time in Kolkata, Boult sent one full and wide, and Kohli promptly obliged by chasing it – bat well away from the body, and coming down at a crooked angle. The resultant edge wasn’t a surprise, and the slice was pouched by Tom Latham at gully, who did really well to lunge to his right to come up with a good double-handed catch. The score read 46/3 and the hosts were badly in need of a partnership but Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane gelled well.
Pujara’s strike-rate had returned to the spotlight – different views were expressed by Kohli and Anil Kumble – following erstwhile chief selector Sandeep Patil’s revelation during the Kanpur Test. But in conditions like these, strike-rate becomes insignificant. Application comes to the fore. And the Saurashtra batsman showed plenty of it to thwart the opposition.
He took 10 balls to get off the mark, waiting to get one in the range. Henry obliged and Pujara hit him for back-to-back fours. When Boult bowled full, he drove him through covers. Loose balls were at a premium but Pujara was patient. It was Test match batting of very high class.
Jeetan Patel, who last played for New Zealand in 2013 before reinventing himself in county cricket with Warwickshire, came and found the outside edge. The ball, however, flew between the keeper and slip for a four, as the first slip went the wrong way. It was a phase when Pujara had been looking a tad edgy but that escape helped him concentrate harder.
His partner Ajinkya Rahane, too, took his time to settle down as India went to lunch at 57/3. With the sun beating down, conditions became a little easier for batting as the day progressed. And both Pujara and Rahane were positive, hardly missing a scoring opportunity. New Zealand bowlers rarely missed their line and length, but whenever they did, the two Indian batters punished them.
Henry bowled short and Pujara was back in a flash and drove it past point. The fast bowler overcorrected his length and Pujara clipped him off his toes to the deep square leg boundary. Rahane’s cover drive against Patel was gorgeous. He read the flight beautifully and covered the turn. It has been a slow progress – run-rate hovering around two-and-a-half – but Pujara and Rahane never got completely bogged down. A partnership was building and it released the pressure.
Pujara reached his fifty in 146 balls; his 10th in 61 Test innings. Rahane followed suit in 100 balls; his ninth in 47 innings.
India’s 100 came in the 47th over and 150 in the 65th. The two batsmen deserved some luck –a very close leg before shout against Pujara off Mitchell Santner was negated.
The Indians upped the ante after tea. The ball was old and the bowlers looked tired, chugging along in sweltering heat but the Kiwis stuck to their game plan. It was a two-paced pitch with the odd ball stopping. A short cover was in place for a mistimed drive and Pujara eventually fell into the trap as an uppish drive went straight to Martin Guptill.
Pujara was dismissed for 87, his third consecutive half-century in the series. But he should be disappointed with his conversion rate as he hasn’t scored a Test century since his 145 not out against Sri Lanka in Colombo in August last year.
Next man in Rohit Sharma survived a run out chance, injuring himself in the process. But he departed next over, done in by an excellent Patel delivery that turned and jumped. But Sharma too has to share some blame; he batted as if he was surprised that the ball turned, and ended up poking it lamely to short-leg.
And then, the New Zealand offie Patel, in for the injured Mark Craig, trapped Rahane leg before with a faster one. The advantage was surrendered. The second new ball accounted for R Ashwin and India were once again under pressure. Pujara and Rahane had mounted a recovery with a 141-run fourth wicket partnership but both got out at the wrong time.
“Yes, Pujara and I will take the blame, because we were set. He got out on 87 and I got out on 77. I think it was our responsibility to carry the partnership forward. See, batsmen just need one ball to get out, but I think if one of us had made a hundred, maybe our position would have been different,” Rahane said after the day’s play.
India would have been happy to finish the day with five wickets down but the couple of extra wickets evened it out. But the pitch is still unpredictable, the ball is turning, and in the absence of Williamson, 300 could be a good enough first-innings total.
Kane Williamson ruled out of the second Test
New Zealand captain Kane Williamson was ruled out of the second cricket Test with a virus, New Zealand Cricket Board said. So former captain Ross Taylor led the side at Eden Gardens instead. Williamson did not train with the team on Thursday after becoming ill but initial indications were that he might be able to play. Reuters