THE REPORT BY ALAGAPPAN MUTHU

India 239 for 7 (Pujara 87, Rahane 77, Henry 3-35) v New Zealand

Since 2015-16, most of India’s Tests at home have been played on pitches that were prone to turn in the first hour. Kanpur wasn’t as extreme, but there was nothing there for the fast bowlers. New Zealand would have arrived in Kolkata expecting more of the same. The grass on the pitch could well have been arranged to spell “surprise.” Kane Williamson was stuck in the dressing room with a fever, but his men gave him a get well card that read “Skipper, we applied pressure for longer” as they reduced India to 239 for 7.

Matt Henry helped them forget they had lost another toss. He courted the outside edge and Eden Gardens was only too willing a wingman. The entire square had been dug up and relaid for the new season and bowling back of a length posed a serious challenge to the batsman because of inconsistent bounce. Henry bowled Shikhar Dhawan in his first over of the match and then dismissed the in-form M Vijay with a beauty. Trent Boult set a trap for Virat Kohli and sprung it before the batsman could reach double-digits.

India needed someone capable of playing time. They lost three wickets in the morning session, but with the sun beating down, conditions would change. If a batsman could last the early stages, he could really cash in. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane did for nearly 50 overs, each setting himself up for a century. But New Zealand didn’t let them get to the landmark. In the final session of play, Neil Wagner had Pujara caught at short cover for 87 and Jeetan Patel deceived Rahane with pace to trap him lbw for 77.

Part of New Zealand’s success was down to their ability to keep the runs down. Even when they couldn’t pick up any wickets in the second session, they allowed India only 79 runs in 31 overs. By doing so, they were able to make sure India couldn’t bat them out of the Test as they had done in the second innings in Kanpur. Ross Taylor’s captaincy and field placements were important in that regard. He had catching men on the drive and the flick, knowing the pitch was offering extra bounce. His bowlers were either wide outside off stump, testing the batsmen’s patience, or at the stumps, knowing they had protection on the leg side, where India could secure only 12 boundaries. These were either scored off overpitched deliveries – Pujara’s flicks early in his innings – or really good shots – Rahane’s flick in the 61st over after getting on top of a Santner delivery turning away from him.

India’s run-rate struggled to get over three, but they had two batsmen who could lay the foundation for a big first innings. The thing was, when they made the mistake, New Zealand pounced on it. Pujara drove on the up, was caught by Martin Guptill, on his birthday, and a 141-run partnership was broken. Rahane was trapped by a quicker ball from Jeetan Patel after he had forced the batsman back into his crease. The 36-year old offspinner had long abandoned hopes of playing international cricket again. He was chosen ahead of Ish Sodhi despite having only a “day and a bit” to acclimatise. But his control of line and ability to drift the ball made him dangerous.

Only four batsmen reached double-figures for India. Dhawan’s comeback was limited to 10 balls, Henry making him drag a cut onto his stumps. The 24-year old fast bowler repeatedly beat the right-handers’ outside edge by straightening the ball off the seam and eventually dismissed Vijay by going a bit wider of the crease, although that may just have been a quirk of fortune because Henry had just been warned for running onto the danger area by umpire Rod Tucker.

Kohli had come out had come out seeming determined not to let the bowling get the better of him. He had made a point to prepare for the ball bouncing awkwardly and was quite circumspect when Wagner banged it in. He was 5 off 24 balls when, from the other end, Boult presented a full, but not quite overpitched, delivery. It was hit through the covers for four. The width on offer had triggered the run-scoring instincts in Kohli. In trying to repeat the stroke, to a ball even wider outside off stump, a ball that he probably could have left, he nicked to gully where Tom Latham took a super catch over his head.

Henry finished the day on a high for New Zealand with the second new ball, pinning R Ashwin lbw in the 84th over, although replays indicated it may have slid down leg. They would know, though, that India’s bowlers are capable of being as disciplined as they were and they have to win without their best batsman to stay alive in the series.

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