India’s primary point of interest in the Mumbai vs New Zealand warm-up match comes just before lunch on Day Two. After acknowledging, shall we say, ‘the appetiser’ — the young Armaan Jaffer who has fallen after a sumptuous 69 — the 400-odd who gathered at Kotla worked up a noise wholly disproportionate to their size as ‘the main course’ comes out of the players’ tunnel. Rohit Sharma made a very brief appearance in the field on the first day before before retreating into the dressing room. Finally, it is the crowd’s chance to see the biggest star attraction of this fixture in action. It’s, too, an opportunity for the talented batsman — whose Test credentials are often questioned — to answer his critics with a big knock ahead of the New Zealand series.
After seven balls, lunch is taken and Rohit walks back on zero. It feels lousy having to wait for 40 additional minutes, but it gives you time to chew on the first session. It has belonged entirely to our man Jaffer. The 17-year-old is yet to make his first-class debut, but great things are expected of him. He gave a glimpse of his precocious talent during his fluent unbeaten 24-run knock on Friday.
On Saturday morning, Jaffer resumes with a rasping drive off Trent Boult before he and Kaustubh Pawar are tested by a few shorts ones from the New Zealand pacers. The tactic doesn’t amount to much on an unresponsive track. A flick of the supple wrists off Doug Bracewell to fine leg brings a three and a deserved half century. In the penultimate over the session, he falls to Ish Sodhi. The leg-spinner tosses one up and Jaffer prods forward, but the ball dips and turns after pitching, taking an edge to the keeper. It seems as if a century opportunity has been missed, but nevertheless we must look at the positives, and the boy has given a good account of himself against an international team.
The dismissal brings us to Rohit. He has had a poor run in Tests of late. Some may find “of late” the previous statement objectionable. They may cite his record in the last 16 of his eighteen Tests: 658 runs at an average of 23.50. But the five wise men think he deserves a longer run in the longest format. Like everyone else, they want him — a most gifted batsman — to succeed in Tests as well. Which is why, after a poor series in the West Indies, they made him play the Duleep Trophy, where he scored a couple of 30s. Which is also why while his teammates assemble in Kanpur on Sunday ahead of the first Test, he is at Feroz Shah Kotla playing the practice match.
The conditions at Kotla are ripe. The pitch is benign and New Zealand’s bowlers are deflated. On the ninth ball of his innings, Rohit jumps out and deposits Sodhi over the long off boundary to open his account. He hasn’t been very convincing, but then he was scratchy early on in both of his ODI double hundreds as well, or for that matter in many of his other memorable limited-over knocks. You see, Rohit needs time to get into his groove.
One incident indicates that he is aware of what needs to be done. At one stage, Pawar tries to hit Mitchell Santner, but the ball is slower than usual. He is early into the shot and it’s a straightforward caught-and-bowled chance, but the left-arm spinner fluffs it. From the non-striker’s end, Rohit appears to suggest Pawar to excercise patience.
However, not too long after Rohit himself steps out against Sodhi who promptly checks his length. And what does Rohit do next? He again jumps out and is nowhere near the pitch of the ball. He misses and Luke Ronchi dislodges the bails. Rohit walks back after making 18.
His bad outing is made to look even worse by his teammates’ subsequent exploits. While Pawar, after the reprieve, builds on his innings and brings up a painstaking ton, Surya Kumar Yadav survives a caught-and-bowled chance on nought off Sodhi and a few more along the way as he reaches three figures in just 86 balls with eight sixes. By the end of it, Siddhesh Lad is threatening to score an even faster hundred having made 86* off 62 with seven hits over the fence. It’s partly because the New Zealand spinners, anticipating dust bowls in the Tests, have rendered themselves ineffective by trying to bowl faster through the air. In the event, they leak 402 runs on the second day.
Later, Mumbai coach Chandrakant Pandit gives his team a pat on the back, and possibly expects — deservedly — one of his own from the Indian team management. “It was a good batting performance. In a way, I would like to think that we have helped the Indian team,” he tells the press after the match.
New Zealand, meanwhile, try to put up a brave face. “We are not really concerned at this stage,” Doug Bracewell says. “It is early on in the tour. They played really well. I definitely know our guys will take some learnings out of today. We know it is going to be a different surface for the first Test.” The visitors have been underwhelming, no doubt, but on the evidence of day two, theirs shouldn’t be the biggest disappointment.
BRIEF SCORES: New Zealand 324/7 decl VS Mumbai 431 FOR 5 in 103 overs (Yadav 103, Pawar 100, Jaffer 69, Lad; Sodhi 2/121)