Immediately after tea on Day Four of the Wellington Test, Mahendra Singh Dhoni took off his wicketkeeping gear, handed it over to Virat Kohli and came on to bowl. After the over, the roles were promptly reversed. Kohli took the pads and gloves off, gave them back to the captain and handed his cap to the umpire. The crowd cheered in amusement as the duo provided a bit of unintended comic relief after what had been another display of intense cricket by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling.
Dhoni usually rolls his arms over in the nets. He is also predisposed to bringing himself on in matches once in a while. Usually it signals that things aren’t quite working and therefore he is trying his luck. That he is hopeful if not quite purposeful. Fair enough. At least the intent is there, of attempting to make things happen.
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But on Monday, as the captain and his lieutenant took turns at bowling and keeping just before the new ball was due, they appeared rather hopeless. And McCullum and Watling, who had taken the score to 440/5 — and the lead to 194 — from a precarious 94/5 at one stage on Sunday, would have recognised the situation as such. In Dhoni and Kohli running in to bowl, they would have seen a white flag fluttering.
Bringing himself on was but a culmination of a series of questionable moves by the India captain. True, the partnership was broken as soon as the new ball was taken, with Mohammed Shami trapping Watling (124 off 367 balls), but before that it was allowed to become a world record 352-run stand, thanks to some unimaginative captaincy.
Let’s make things clear: Dhoni is a remarkable batting skipper, as he demonstrated during the Eden Park Test in Auckland, when he and Ravindra Jadeja launched into a stirring counterattack in the fourth innings, nearly pulling off a win.
But it’s as a fielding captain that the 32-year-old is prone to brain fades.
On Sunday, he had a defensive field for McCullum and Watling for long periods which essentially allowed the batsmen to settle down. It could be argued that it nearly paid off twice when McCullum played uppish drives down the wicket, but was dropped by the silly mid on fielder (Kohli) and the bowler (Ishant Sharma). But that was early on in his innings. Thereafter, his knock was pretty much chanceless.
If Dhoni was stubborn in continuing with a 2-7 field on Sunday, he was surprisingly reactive in changing the positions today. A shot through the covers would see a short extra cover being deployed off the next ball. A flick off the pads would necessitate the short extra cover being taken off and put at short leg. Silly mid on would be become silly mid off depending on where the previous ball was hit. Think of a water pipe with multiple holes. Just as you try to plug one, the other starts leaking. Now think of Dhoni’s captaincy on Day Four.
As a result, the bowlers didn’t know which line to stick to. There was no one line to stick to.
The New Zealand captain gave one half opportunity today, in the 23rd over of the day when a Zaheer Khan ball pitched at length and took off, taking an edge off McCullum’s bat. Shikhar Dhawan, the lone fielder at slip, dived full length but couldn’t hold on to the catch. It raced to the boundary. McCullum was on 157 then and New Zealand’s lead was 81. A more conventional field, with three slips, could have produced a different result.
Any suggestion, however, that the mammoth 571/6 total by New Zealand was all down to Dhoni’s mistakes would be grossly unfair on McCullum and Watling. Last evening, the duo, who were unbeaten on 114 and 55 respectively, has insisted that the job was only half done. They began Monday from scratch, seeing off the early morning threat before slowly starting to assert themselves.
McCullum brought up his 150 with a cracking punch off Zaheer through the covers, while the 200 too came off a boundary when the left-arm pacer was clipped away off the pads. It was McCullum’s second double century of the series and third over all— all of them against India. Watling also played his role to perfection and he too reached his second Test century with a clip to the deep square leg boundary off the same bowler.
At one stage every run that the duo found, scored or took, took them past one record or the other.
When Watling eventually fell on 124, after making what is the highest score by a New Zealand wicketkeeper in Tests, the team were 200 runs ahead, not really out of trouble given the depth in Indian batting.
But newcomer Jimmy Neesham, who had waited with the pads on for over eight hours, played positively and added 125 runs with McCullum in no time. At the other end, the New Zealand captain brought up his 250 by hooking Shami for a six over deep square leg. Dhoni watched the ball sail over the fence and clapped rather absentmindedly.
“The last hour was a bit of a daze,” McCullum would later say, about slowing down a shade after reaching 250. “I was just trying to get through and thankfully Neesh was playing some shots and ticking the scoreboard over. So I thought I’d just hang in there. I guess I was trying to make sure you get through to the day knowing you have earned the right to get through the day after the pressure we have had to absorb. I am pretty tired at the moment, body is a little bit sore, but when you are scoring runs, your body does not hurt so much.”
On a pedestal
As McCullum walked back to the pavilion to a standing ovation and the Indian players rushed to congratulate him, one couldn’t help but ask: Where does this rearguard stand in New Zealand Cricket’s history? The Test match where Martin Crowe made 299 instantly comes to mind. Interestingly, in that game at the Basin Reserve in 1991, New Zealand were dismissed for 174 in the first innings, following which Sri Lanka amassed 497, courtesy a double century by Aravinda de Silva. In the second innings, the home team were 148/2 but not out of trouble when Crowe and Andrew Jones (186) dropped the anchor and made history.
That was the only match in the country, says New Zealand Cricket Museum’s curator Jamie Bell, where a team dismissed for less that 200 in the first innings went on to save the Test. McCullum and Watling seem to have ensured there will be at least a repeat tomorrow.
Digest that, then consider this. Superstitious Indian fans will spot an omen: McCullum’s is batting on 281.
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