India’s mammoth home season of Test cricket got under way in Kanpur and it was a stuttering start by the home team. This series should be one that they will win, and if they do they will be the number one ranked Test side in the world. As flawed as the ICC’s ranking system is, it is the only way we have to judge the relative merits of Test-playing nations. India have a great deal to play for in this series and beyond.
This is India’s 500th Test match. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance as a result. The great and the good of Indian cricket were all present, and Mohammad Azharuddin. Quite why this was a cause for such celebration isn’t clear. Apart from the arbitrary nature of picking 500 as the number to get excited about, there is no promotion or relegation in Test cricket. Once you are a Test team you are one forever. All that India needed to do to get to 500 matches is to schedule 500 matches. Congratulations to the fixture secretary, you’ve done well.
Before this game, New Zealand had played 32 Tests in India and they have won just two of them. Their last victory in India came back in 1988 when Sir Richard Hadlee was still in the side. While this is as strong a New Zealand Test side as any that have toured India, they were very much second favourites in this match and this series. There chances got worse when Kane Williamson called wrong at the toss and India batted first on a pitch that has a history of deteriorating.
With Tim Southee not in this squad through injury and Jimmy Neesham missing this Test with a rib problem, there were limited seam bowling options for the New Zealanders and they made the decision to go in with three spinners.
It was one of the slower bowlers that made the first break through when Mitchell Santner dismissed KL Rahul for 32, with the batsman feathering an edge through to the keeper. That brought together Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, who put on a score exceeding a century together for the fourth times in Tests. The best of those is the 370-run partnership they shared against Australia in March 2013, this one was not quite so monumental. They had made 112 between them when Santner got the ball to dip on Pujara and the batsman spooned a simple caught-and-bowled chance that the bowler gleefully accepted.
When Virat Kohli was tucked up by a Neil Wagner bouncer than he top edged to fine leg, India found themselves 167 for three and in danger of throwing away the strong position that Vijay and Pujara had given them. When Vijay also fell in the middle session, it went from India’s day to one that was brilliantly poised in the space of the 28 overs between lunch and tea.
During their series against the West Indies in the Caribbean, there were times when this Indian team were guilty of not making the most of really dominant positions, and there was an element of that on day one in Kanpur. Another session of 100 plus runs for the loss of one — or even two — wickets would have left India a long way to setting a match-winning total by close on the first day. Some poor shot selection and execution meant that the momentum gained before lunch was lost.
When Ajinkya Rahane fell to a bat pad catch off Mark Craig just after tea, India had gone from 154 for one to 209 for five. It could well have been 214 for six when Rohit Sharma missed a sweep from Craig that looked very out. The umpire seemed to think that it pitched outside leg, the replays showed it was very close. Unfortunately the BCCI’s increasingly ridiculous stance of refusing to use the Decision Referral System (DRS) that is ubiquitous everywhere else in the world means we cannot know for sure.
Rohit managed to reach 35, repairing some of the damage that was done by the middle order’s mini-collapse, along with Ravichandran Ashwin. But he did not make the most of the umpire’s largesse and drove a ball straight to mid-on just at the point where he looked completely at ease.
In matches played in 2016, Ashwin is averaging 55. He is now in this team as much for his batting as his bowling — the true hallmark of a world class all-rounder. Unfortunately for him and India, he couldn’t make it to the close, well caught at a wide first slip by Ross Taylor off the bowling of Trent Boult.
Once again, India had looked like taking control of this game and through some poor shots and some excellent New Zealand bowling, they failed to do so. India reached 291 for nine at the close as wickets continued to tumble. They will be disappointed not to have more on the board for fewer wickets down.
India are still favourites to win this game. They have the chance to bowl last at New Zealand on a pitch that is already showing signs of turn on day one. With both Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in their line-up they will be hoping that those men in home conditions have the wherewithal to run through this New Zealand batting line-up. But it is far closer than it could have been if the India middle order had made more of the position that they found themselves in at lunch. Now they need to bowl better than they batted.