Day three of the Test was about two identical scorelines. As Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara walked back unbeaten at stumps, having scored two authoritative half-centuries, New Zealand would have looked at the scorecard wistfully. 159 for one. It was at this very score earlier in the day that the script went awry for the visitors.
Tom Latham and Kane Williamson had resumed at an overnight score of 152 for one. The key to their previous day’s success against the Indian spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, was to keep rotating the strike. Their batting coach Craig McMillan explained on Friday evening that Latham and Williamson’s plan was to not allow a bowler bowl 12-15 balls at the same person.
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But often, your plan is as good as the opposition allows it to be. With the Green Park pitch increasingly beginning to offer inconsistent bounce and turn, Ashwin and Jadeja had started to smother the flow of runs on Day Two itself, but their efforts were stymied by the rain as it washed out the final session. The Indian spinners were not to be denied, though.
Before the day’s play, they decided to stick to a stump-to-stump line. “Ashwin and I spoke of that. ‘Don’t stray too much and keep a stump-to-stump line.’ We knew we’ll get maximum chances by keeping the ball on the stumps, either lbw or bowled. There wasn’t much turn from the stumps, but our initial plan was to string together maiden overs, however many – whether five or six – we needed to give up fewer runs and that would also create pressure on them. Finally we executed our plan,” Jadeja said.
On Friday, Jadeja and Ashwin had bowled a total two maidens between them. Today, they began by bowling four consecutive maidens. By the end of this run-less streak – which actually lasted 33 balls – New Zealand had lost Tom Latham and Ross Taylor.
Intelligent field placements
With a combination of intelligent field placement and tight bowling, Latham was worked out by Ashwin. Coming from around the wicket, Ashwin drifted one in. The left-handed Latham put his bat forward playing for the turn. It hit him flush on the pads and plumb in front. The 151-ball vigil ended at 58. New Zealand were now 159/2. One run later, it became three as Taylor, caught neither forward nor back, was beaten all ends up by a Jadeja delivery that didn’t turn. India smelled blood.
Jadeja was indecipherable and Ashwin was getting the ball to do all sorts of things from the roughs. New Zealand though were still in the game till Kane Williamson, their best batsman, was hanging in there. But then came the body blow. From a particularly devious rough at the good length spot, Ashwin got one ball to spin venomously. Williamson went back and shaped to play a cut. But it turned more than he anticipated and bounced a fraction lower. The breached one of the most solid defences in world cricket and crashed into his off-stump.
New Zealand lost three wickets in the space of 11 runs. And it’s telling that it wouldn’t be there worst performance of the day.
Before that, though, Luke Ronchi played with a surefootedness that wasn’t seen in most of his teammates today. With a willing Mitchell Santner, he went about rebuilding the innings. Ronchi is very light on his feet and reads the length early which is the key on such surfaces. He came forward and went back quickly and committed fully. He also took the fight to the Indian spinners, cutting and driving them in an emphatic manner.
He took New Zealand within 100 runs of the Indian total, but then fortune, which was with New Zealand the other day, turned back on them. Jadeja, coming from around the wicket, bowed a fuller length delivery. Ronchi went for the sweep and the ball pitched and turned away. The angle and the spin would have taken it away from the off-stump, but the umpire thought otherwise and raised his finger. Santner and Watling offered a bit more resistance, but Jadeja induced a tired edge off the former in an over that yielded three wickets. From 255/5, New Zealand succumbed to 262 all out.
“Obviously they have not played much in our Indian conditions, or Asian conditions, recently. So we had that advantage, that on a spinning wicket (they didn’t know) which balls to defend, which to stop, which to hit. I think by the time they understood that, they had already lost six or seven wickets. That was an advantage. We also wanted a wicket in the morning session to get into the game and that worked out eventually. We got four wickets in the first session and after lunch in three overs, ho gaya tha kaam tab tak,” Jadeja said.
Buoyed by their spinners’ performance, the Indian batsmen came charging out. Left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner, bowling with the new ball, spun one across the face of Vijay’s bat in the second over, but what New Zealand’s spinners lacked was Ashwin’s guile and Jadeja’s diligence. Vijay and KL Rahul disrupted their rhythm with some aggressive shot making. After Rahul’s dismissal, Vijay and Pujara put together another century partnership as India ended the day 215 runs ahead. And with victory in sight.