In stadiums across India, “Kohleeee, Kohli” has replaced “Saaachin, Sachin”. A deafening roar that reverberates around the stands moments after the team has lost its second wicket. No matter the score: 12/2 or 154/2. On Thursday, Day One of the first India-New Zealand Test, it had just become 154/2 when Virat Kohli walked out to the customary welcome.
As uplifting this noise is for Indian fans, it may be unsettling for the opposition. They get a reminder of what they up against: one of the best batsmen in the world. But New Zealand aren’t known to get intimidated by reputations. They have long lived in the shadow of the mighty Aussies without so much as caring a fig.
So Neil Wagner, bowling from around the wicket, started by pitching one short at the Indian captain. Kohli, never the one to shy away from aggressive posturing, put the offering away past fine leg. Easy meat?
Wagner moved over the wicket and banged another one in, only this time the angle and awkward bounce cramped up Kohli. Rather than dropping his hands, he went ahead with the pull. The top-edge was gobbled up by Ish Sodhi in the deep. Kohli’s departure, like Tendulkar’s, brings a creepy silence. A few headed to the exits.
Kohli’s was the only scalp Wagner got today — statistically his 1/42 had a small part to play in India finishing day one at 291 for 9 — but he personified New Zealand’s approach. Kane Williamson and his young team never stopped trying, no matter the odds or conditions and whatever the stage of the game.
Unlike his new-ball partner Trent Boult, Wagner doesn’t rely much on swing. He believes in hitting the deck. On this wicket, however, the more he bent his back, the lower the ball kept. The short-pitched ones rose waist high and the fuller length balls barely climbed above ankles. It would have deflated any other bowler, but Wagner has nothing if not a big heart.
Two-and-a-half years ago, in Auckland, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had put India firmly on course on Day Four. And come-from-behind win beckoned.
On a track that had become progressively flat, Brendon McCullum summoned his tireless workhorse and he delivered, removing both Kohli and Dhawan with bouncers. India lost by 40 runs.
Sometimes it feels that like a horse Wagner comes with blinkers on. He cuts himself off from surroundings and keeps coming back with same intensity and sense of purpose. The way he hits the deck, it appears he harbours not a grudge against the batsman but the pitch. On Thursday, he would keep steaming in from over the wicket and around and banging them in short. Occasionally, a ball would hit a dry tuft of grass and climb awkwardly. These small moments kept the Kiwis going. Like Wagner, they too were rewarded for this exemplary patience. In the last one-and-a-half sessions, their spinners and pacers pulled the rug from under India’s feet, taking eight wickets in the space of 123 runs after hosts were looking all set for mammoth total on a Green Park track that didn’t have any demons in it.
The Double Act
Earlier, when the left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner snared Rahul in his second over, it looked like India were in for a tough session. The 10,000-strong crowd, most of them fed on limited overs diet, cheered thinking the ODI No.3 was coming out. To their disappointment, it was India’s Test No.3.
Pujara was one of the rare Indian batsmen to have missed out on scoring big runs in the West Indies. Vijay, on the other hand, didn’t get enough chances. Both of them, in fact, scored their last half-centuries in the Mohali Test last year. And that was a vicious wicket.
His quality against spin was never in question, but Pujara is a rhythm batsman. That is, he needs the confidence of runs behind him. Two matches of the Duleep Trophy in Greater Noida gave him just that. A daddy hundred and a big double hundred, and Saurashtra batsman found the spring in his step. At any rate, in his footwork. It was evident in the way he jumped out and drove the spinners down the ground as well as the use of crease to play delicate cuts.
There were occasional good balls that beat the outside edge or hit the inside of the blade, but against India’s two most rock solid batsmen, the New Zealand spinners weren’t allowed to get their lengths and lines right. Before long, the duo had brought up their fifties as India raced past 150. It seemed like the same old story. Vijay and Pujara threatened to close the door on New Zealand. They have done that in the past. In 2013, the two had a partnership of 370 runs against Australia at Hyderabad. It was the second Test, Australia would get drained and disheartened, eventually losing the series 4-0. They can mentally decimate opponents by batting for long hours without giving anything away.
Again, New Zealand are different. Against the run of play, Pujara fell. Santner again went wide and bowled a fuller one that came in with an angle. Pujara had jumped out, but the drift meant he was thrown off his balance. He scooped it back to the bowler.
ALSO READ | Cheteshwar Pujara back in the zone
Leg-spinner Sodhi would soon give India the body blow. On a slow wicket, New Zealand’s spinners resorted to bowling quicker through the air. It paid off, too, as both Rahul and Pujara fell to Santner’s fastish deliveries. Sodhi invited Vijay to cut, but the ball skidded and straightened. The faint edge was lapped up by the wicketkeeper BJ Watling.
Post-tea, a reinvigorated New Zealand ran through India’s middle and lower order. Rohit Sharma put together a half-century partnership with Ravichandran Ashwin. But, as is his wont, Sharma threw it away trying to hit Santner over long off. Boult then channelised his inner Wagner and rattled the lower order with the second new ball with a skillful exhibition of seam bowling. By the end of the first day of their landmark 500th Test, India were in danger of folding up inside 300.
Though, the Kiwis had an upper hand, they would be grappling with a few questions tonight. Can they go past 300 when they get a chance to bat? Will their batsmen show the patience that the bowlers displayed? How will the pitch behave in the coming days?
The day’s first wicket, Santner dismissing Rahul, gave some clue about the much-obsessed-over 22 yards. It was the 11th over of the match, and it was then that the ball the pitch-watchers had been waiting for arrived. Bowling from the west end, Mitchell Santner went wide of the crease and fired one in. The ball landed at a length outside off, gripped the surface and turned, leaving a puff of dust in its wake. Having been surprised by an armer earlier in the over, Rahul hung back and played for the angle. It turned and kissed his outside edge, and Watling, despite the low bounce, scooped it up.
Aside of that one ball, there was nothing in the pitch in the first two sessions to justify the scrutiny that had preceded the match. There was a bit of variable bounce and turn, though by no means exaggerated. In other words, it had what you expect of a normal Test pitch in India. The cracks will become loose and it will turn more on Day Two and thereafter, which is a natural progression. And that gives India hope. If Santner can turn, so too can Ravindra Jadeja. And then there’s Ashwin at the other end.