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Wagner and the march of NZ

Pacer takes eight wickets to give hosts 1-0 series lead; India fall 40-short of tallest chase in country.

Neil Wagner (centre) celebrates after dismissing Indian skipper MS Dhoni. The pacer picked up four wickets in each innings of first Test. (Reuters) Neil Wagner (centre) celebrates after dismissing Indian skipper MS Dhoni. The pacer picked up four wickets in each innings of first Test. (Reuters)

Having danced down and tonked New Zealand leg-spinner Ish Sodhi to cow corner for a six, an elated Shikhar Dhawan took off his helmet, put it on the ground and looked skywards with folded hands. He was then beginning to proceed to the second of his two-part celebration ritual after reaching a hundred — to spread his arms like the Vitruvian Man and acknowledge the crowd — when Virat Kohli stopped him in between and pointed towards the giant screen. Dhawan realised the mistake. He had miscalculated. The shot had taken him to 99.

The Delhi left-hander’s eagerness to celebrate, which saw him getting a bit ahead of himself, was understandable. He has had such a torrid time with bat in the past two months, averaging just above 15 across formats since South Africa, that it resulted in him getting dropped from the One-day team for a game recently. He did complete the deserved ton, his second since the 187 on debut against Australia, and the celebration, with a cut off Sodhi’s next ball. In the process, he became only the second Indian opener to have hit a fourth innings hundred. Sunil Gavaskar, who was watching from the commentary box, was the first one and had pulled off the feat four times. Of those occasions, India went on to lose the game once, against Australia at Perth in 1977.

By the end of the fourth day of the first Test at Auckland on Sunday, the batting great would have Dhawan’s company in that regard too, as India, after being in a seemingly commanding position at one stage in the afternoon — 222 for two while chasing 407 — went on to lose the match by 40 runs.

Overnight 87 for one, India lost Cheteshwar Pujara early with the batsman nicking Tim Southee behind the wicket. But Dhawan and Kohli consolidated the chase with a confident 126-run partnership to take the score to double nelson. At which point, Neil Wagner, who has made it a knack of giving the team crucial breakthroughs, struck. The left-armer dug in one short and rather slow. It was going wide of the off-stump but Kohli still decided to flash his bat. It grazed the toe of his bat and settled into wicket-keeper BJ Watling’s gloves. Kohli made 67.

Wagner’s Aggression

With the wicket, something clicked within Wagner. There is a mongrel in him, and it was unleashed. He ran in hard and bowled with relentless aggression. The ball that removed Dhawan was a vicious bouncer that grew big on the batsman before he could even realised. Dhawan and no other option but to hop and fend it off to the wicketkeeper.

India, as a result, were without a set batsman when the new ball was taken.

New Zealand struck with the first delivery off the 81st over, with Ajinkya Rahane given an lbw off Trent Boult when there was an inside edge onto the pads. Rohit Sharma, who made a half-century in the first innings, was out in the next over, with Tim Southee inducing an outside edge.

On the Attack

A belligerent MS Dhoni and Ravindra Jadeja then took the attack to Boult and Southee, knocking off 54 runs in 5.4 overs by the duo. The plan was to put the pressure right back on the Kiwi bowlers, and they did manage to do so and the field opened up. Jadeja looked especially severe, playing both brutal and beautiful strokes on either side. He stepped out and smashed Boult straight back for a six, and drew high praise from Gavaskar for defending the next ball. “Good sensible cricket,” said the commentator. The curse was on. Jadeja tried to go for another mighty heave but the mistimed shot was neatly taken by Sodhi at mid on.
India required another 83 at that time.

Zaheer Khan added another 38 runs with Dhoni, before Wagner dismissed both in quick succession. Zaheer was done in by a back-of-a-length delivery that took his outside edge, while a slow bouncer was dragged onto the stumps by Dhoni. Wagner puffed his chest out and celebrated like a prizefighter who has just floored the favourite in the title match.

And when Ishant Sharma was caught behind off a Boult bouncer, the New Zealand team erupted in celebration. They were well in command of the Test match when the decision to not enforce the follow-on nearly cost them the game. India did well to come close, but it was never going to be easy chasing 400 plus runs in the fourth innings of a Test.

They didn’t lose the match when Kohli and Dhoni got out playing avoidable pull shots off wide bouncers. Or when Rahane fell to a howler of a decision. Or when Jadeja went for one shot too many. India lost the game much before that, when they conceded 503 runs in the first innings on Day Two and then made only 202 in reply. From that moment, they were always going to have to play catch up.

“In the first innings, in both the departments we could have done better,” Dhoni later said. “(Bowling-wise), we gave away a few deliveries to score in the first innings because of which we were at the receiving end. (And in batting), it was a wicket where you could have gone on to score big, (like) how Brendon McCullum scored.”

In the context of the series too, Dhoni & Co. will again be in a similar position, trying to play catch-up when the second Test starts at the Basin Reserve, Wellington, on February 14.

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