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Thursday, January 27, 2022

India vs India in last-day epic as Rachin, Ajaz save Kiwis in Kanpur

Destiny brought Rachin and Ajaz together, and they seized the moment. It’s unsure how their career would progress from here, but they have collected memories of a lifetime during those 52 balls.

Written by Sandip G | Kanpur |
Updated: November 30, 2021 1:52:52 pm
India vs New Zealand, Green ParkIndia's captain Ajinkya Rahane speaks to on field umpires as after they stopped play at the end of the fifth day their first test cricket match with New Zealand in Kanpur, India, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

UNDER THE smoggy, flood-lit skies of the historic Green Park Stadium, a draw for ages, where sweat and emotion flowed in equal measure, was played out between India and New Zealand. The fortunes of the game fluctuated, as the day toggled between smog and sunshine. The tourists needed 284 runs to win the Test, which was a lost pursuit even before New Zealand’s fourth innings began, but they batted stoutly and stoically to deny India by a lone wicket in the opening Test of the series.

At the heart of the rearguard were a debutant all-rounder and a left-arm spinner of Indian heritage, Rachin Ravindra (18 off 91 balls) and Ajaz Patel (2 off 23), who blunted 52 balls to deny India.

Rachin’s father was a software system architect from Bengaluru who emigrated to Wellington at the turn of the century, but continued his love for cricket. He soon began organising cricket for schoolchildren and started the Hutts Hawks Club, which organised cricket tours to different outposts of the game across the world. Naturally, Rachin, his name a portmanteau of his father’s favourite cricketers, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, took to the game.

Ajaz was born in Mumbai and shifted to Auckland when he was eight with his father Yunus, who was then a refrigerator mechanic. He was not much of a cricket nerd, but upon his aunt’s insistence, was enrolled in a local club from where former New Zealand spinner Dipak Patel spotted him.

Destiny brought Rachin and Ajaz together, and they seized the moment. It’s unsure how their career would progress from here, but they have collected memories of a lifetime during those 52 balls, each ball an event in itself.

There was more drama and outpouring of emotion in the last ten minutes than in the entire match — appeals, reviews, chats, umpires flipping the light-meter, deafening chants from the stands, chirping fielders, edges falling short, pitch playing tricks, and the ball seldom kicking up thigh-high. From hope to dejection, desperation to agony, the stadium was wrapped in a miasma of emotions. In the mix of all, New Zealand’s last-wicket pair remained unflustered.

On the sixth ball of the 96th over, Ravi Ashwin rapped Ajaz on his pads, and the Indian cricketers and the stands went delirious. The umpire remained unmoved. Skipper Ajinkya Rahane reviewed. The crowd held their breath, their eyes converged to the two television screens at the Mills End. The replays showed no bat, much to their joy, but Hawkeye showed the ball had pitched just outside leg-stump. Ajaz heaved a sigh of relief, Rachin wrapped his arms around him. A bond for a lifetime might have been born here.

Rahane chewed his lips, Ashwin frowned. Half an inch into the stumps, he would have been wheeling away in celebration. Ravindra Jadeja, though, exuded serenity. Only two overs remained for New Zealand to seal a memorable draw and India to pinch a famous win. But then, the umpires flicked out the light-meter. It was 15 minutes past four, but the stadium was wrapped in darkness. A wave of anxiety lashed the ground, before it burst in joy when the umpires concluded that the light was fine for the game to continue.

It was the third time in as many overs that the umpires had checked the light. Soon, the crowd started chanting the names of the umpires, Nitin Menon and Virender Sharma, perhaps a first-time experience for them.

Then, they were chanting the name of Axar Patel, the first-innings hero with the ball, jaunting in from the River End. The stadium brimmed with anticipation, but Rachin repelled everything that was thrown at him. The third ball spun viciously into him and brushed the inside edge. The crowd leapt in joy but the edge eluded leg-gully. By this time, every Indian fielder was around the batsman like an umbrella, piling pressure every split second. A pin-drop silence filled the ground, as Rachin defended the final three balls to safety. And then, in between the overs, they gave him a standing ovation for the heart and skill he had shown.

But one more over remained, and Jadeja calmly tossed the ball in the air, as he had the destiny of the game in his hand. He was the force that stretched the match this far with four wickets, including those of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, to breathe life into a match that was meandering into a tame draw. But Ajaz frayed no nerves, emphatically defending each of the six balls. The second ball spun and kept low, but Ajaz had his eyes right under the ball and body right behind it.

At the end of the over, the 98th of the New Zealand innings, with 10 more minutes remaining for close of play, the umpires checked the light again, and informed the players that it was too bad for the game to continue. With weary eyes, the Indian players lingered on, imploringly staring at the skies, in case the sun winked again. It didn’t, and they dragged themselves dejectedly into the dressing room. By this time, Rachin and Ajaz were already basking in the sweat of their toil.

The game was yet again a vindication of New Zealand’s fortitude, their knack of fighting till the end and their heart for a scrap. Not for nothing are they the world champions, and no team has run India this close at home in recent times. And how ironic it was that two Kiwis of Indian descent were at the heart of a fifth-day epic.

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