Straightaway after Rachin Ravi laced a gorgeous square drive in the fourth over, Umesh Yadav decided to come around the stumps to the left-hander, an unusual channel of operation for him. It began disastrously as his ankle slipped during the landing, sending a wave of momentary fear in the dressing room. How India could do away with a freak ankle twist, as had occurred to Ishant Sharma in Delhi, where Yadav was a witness. But Yadav flashed an embarrassed smile, gestured he was alright towards the dressing and offered an apology to the batsman.
The strategy, though, hardly paid any dividends. It could be foreseen, as Yadav is not someone like Mohammed Shami who can move the ball away after pitching from that angle, or hold the line fractionally. All he could was to bowl straight at the off-stump and wish the batsman misses and the ball hits the pad. He has to be pinpoint perfect, for even if the ball pings the batsman on the middle-stump, umpires would be hesitant to approve his appeal.
A few overs later, Ravi dispatched him to successive boundaries, a classic left-hander’s on-the-rise cover drive, followed by a neat pull. The drive was not off an over-pitched delivery, but the awareness that Yadav won’t take the ball away from him was convincing enough for Ravi to unfurl the stroke.
The pull was off a wayward short-ball on leg-stump, which he just had to glide through fine leg. Promptly, he was withdrawn from the attack, his first-spell figures reading 4-0-18-1.
Not merely the figures, he hardly threatened to grab a wicket, barring a couple of deliveries that seamed away late after landing. But in general, he was the throwback scattergun, who seldom adheres to the fundamental tenet of bowling on one side of the pitch. Or sticking to the length that suits the pitch. It was not a bowl-full pitch that conspired lateral movement, but one wherein the bowler had to pound the back-of-length area and optimise the bounce.
Maybe, he was striving too hard for this length, which is not his natural landing zone, that he either over-reached or under-reached. In the first over, he was unnecessarily looking to bounce out the batsman but only ended up testing the stretching limits of Pant. He stopped one, but the second he wouldn’t have averted even if he was wearing a pair of stilettos.
It’s exactly what India didn’t want to watch from their likeliest candidate to replace the injured Ishant, and a 45-Test-old veteran (among the pacers, only Mohammed Shami has more Test caps). It’s that stage of a career when you expect more guarantee from Yadav, and in fairness, he has evolved into reliable bowler, both in terms of taking wickets and stopping runs, seamlessly straddling the strike-stock bowler worlds.
But with Navdeep Saini maturing by leaps with every outing, Yadav’s slot in the team is not a surety. Both are different bowlers-Saini is more of a hit-the-deck purveyor with a heavy ball and twinkling pace, as opposed to Yadav who probes fuller lengths. But considering that their primary role could be that of a stock bowler, a support cast to Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, the team management could pick the one who’s prospectively thriftier, who could be better suited to fill in Ishant’s role. Neither of them is a like-for-like replacement, but both are resourceful in their own different ways.
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Thus, replacing Bumrah in the eleventh over, it was Saini’s chance to justify the hype around him and press for his Test debut. He didn’t in the first spell, wherein he bowled sans the usual bustle. The run-up was a touch slower and shorter, and he didn’t seem inclined to bowl at full tilt. He hardly procured the bounce Bumrah was getting from the same end, whereupon he quickly reverted to a fuller length, which’s not clearly his strength. Unsurprisingly, he neither looked like getting a wicket nor putting a tight leash on the batsmen. Finn Allen latched onto his loose deliveries and motored on, before he was duly taken out of the attack.
If the spells were taken into consideration, the third-bowler poll was a split verdict. Both were unworthy of mandate. But their respective second spells were more heated.
Yadav pounded in and ratcheted up the pace, he was more accurate, fourth stump or thereabouts and regularly hooped the ball away. There was nothing short or leg-side bound and he built substantial pressure. Just before lunch, he exacted revenge on the batsman who had troubled him the most too, Ravi, caught behind off a delivery that slanted across him after repeatedly beating him from the over-the-wicket angle. It was the tonic he required. The second spell read more presentable figures of 4-1-10-1.
Bounded in Saini-this time full steam, with a steamier run-up. He found two friends that seemed to have deserted him, pace and bounce. He was hitting the batsmen higher on the bat and troubling them with inward movement, his improved efforts rewarded with the wickets of Tom Bruce and Dane Cleaver, one through the gate and the other played-on. On both instances, the batsmen were hustled by the pace, bounce and movement. Thus, neither had a clear advantage in their second spells. By the time, the third spells beckoned, New Zealand ‘A’ were down to their lower-order batsmen, keeping the third seamer’s spot inconclusive. And it’s unlikely that either of them would get a meaningful enough chance on the final day.
So eventually, the next few net sessions notwithstanding, it might boil down to a lot of factors. Like the pitch (Yadav if it’s grassier and Navdeep if it’s bouncier), tactics (what if they decide to play two spinners?), or even the hunch or the role (Navdeep can bowl long unrelenting spells, which’s often required of the third seamer). Yadav, by all means, would start as the overwhelming favourite. But Saini would offer a stiff race. Both, though, would rue that they couldn’t present their case more tellingly on the second day.