For more than an hour on Sunday afternoon at Wankhede Stadium, New Zealand did not lose a single wicket, courtesy a 73-run fourth-wicket partnership between Daryl Mitchell and Henry Nicholls. Considering that their entire first innings had folded for 62 in about two hours the previous day, it was a massive improvement already, albeit from the lowest of bases.
The lull in the wicket procession was enough for the vocal upper tier of the Dilip Vengsarkar Stand, the erstwhile North Stand, to start chanting, ‘Monday office jaana hai, out karo, out karo. [We have to go to work on Monday, so get them out].’
It was a sample of the kind of expectations India face at home, where a Test match win — and even a win with days to spare – is taken for granted. But it wasn’t as easy as it had been on Day Two, when New Zealand had lasted a mere 28.1 overs.
The bite and zip that had delivered the historic perfect ten for Ajaz Patel, and then produced the lowest total ever against India in a blink-and-miss New Zealand reply, had gradually dissipated. It was miles away from the slow and low Kanpur track of course; it was more of slow turn and slow bounce. The moisture from all the rain in the lead-up to the match had diminished by the third morning, and batters were no longer getting rushed.
“Two days back, due to the underlying moisture, the ball had fast turn and as time is progressing, the track is slowing down a bit, so today, even when there was turn, the batter had enough time to go on the back foot and negotiate it,” said Axar Patel.
“Only if the batter is making mistakes, then it is a bit difficult for him. We have been in umpteen situations like these and we know what needs to be done in these circumstances. It won’t always be the case that batters will get out quickly so one needs to have patience.”
Patience was what India had to work with. Mitchell, especially, was batting with controlled aggression, having seen Mayank Agarwal take the attack to the New Zealand spinners in both his knocks.
Mitchell batted on leg stump, trying to stay leg side of the ball and play straighter towards the off-side. He was also using his feet constantly to get to the pitch of the ball and work it around. He charged the spinners often and lofted them cleanly to the straight boundary.
“Set the template from Mayank’s batting, the way he put pressure on our spinners. It’s just about trying to put pressure back on the bowlers,” Mitchell said. “That’s the beauty of Test cricket. They (bowlers) are constantly throwing things at you and you’re trying to counter that. You have to keep trying to win the small battles.”
It remains essentially a one-ball game for batters though, and Mitchell would succumb in a mini-battle against Axar on 60. He’d just stepped out to hit his ninth boundary, a straight six to the left-arm spinner. Axar gave the next ball some air too, but this one was a touch wider and the length had been pulled back a tad. Mitchell found himself nowhere near the pitch, still went through with his big swing, and mishit to the lone man sweeping on the off-side rope.
Two overs later, Tom Blundell pushed Axar straight to mid-off and set off for a non-existent single only to be run out for a duck. After that brief revival from 55/3, New Zealand had slipped to 129/5.
Mohammed Siraj could not produce a wicket burst with the new ball like he had on Day Two. But R Ashwin spun out the openers Tom Latham and Will Young as well as Ross Taylor with the new SG in the first hour. The veteran Taylor’s horror tour ended with 11, 2, 1 and 6. He’d tried defending without success; in most likely his final Test innings in India, he tried hitting out, and top-edged a slog to depart off his eighth delivery.
It was after India had batted for 49 overs to pile up a gargantuan lead of 539. The top four of Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli made 62, 47, 47 and 36, none of them going on to convert their starts. All of them fell to varying kinds of soft dismissals, before Axar heralded the declaration on 276/7 in 70 overs with an unbeaten 41 off 26. Ten-for man Ajaz registered match figures of 14/225, the best ever haul against India.
Axar was asked why India had batted for so long despite their lead having already grown so much. He said the plan had been to bat as if they were chasing a target on a turner.
“I won’t call it a delay as there is so much time left in the game. The idea was to bat as long as possible in this kind of a situation, you don’t get every day, so the plan was to make the most of it,” Axar said. “We were trying to explore options and check out what if we have to chase on this kind of a track on the last day, trying to express ourselves in a different situation.”
That India were treating their second innings as a simulation chase tells you everything about how much they have bossed this match so far. Another home series win is a matter of five strikes on Day Four, with New Zealand needing another 400 runs.
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