With only two wickets falling on Day 2 of the third Test between India and New Zealand in Indore, the visitors might have entertained hopes of better batting conditions on Day 3. And when Tom Latham registered his third half-century of the series, he and Martin Guptill had extended the illusion of a quieter pitch, an illusion whose fabric Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane had draped over Indore the previous day.
However, when Ravichandran Ashwin found Latham's leading edge, the off-spinner had gotten a finger under that fabric. By the end of day's play, he had pulled it clean off, claiming yet another five-for at home.
In the first Test, a pattern had emerged over the first two innings, of wickets falling in a cluster near the 45-over mark. That pattern was apparent again on Monday, when New Zealand batted as if the wear on the ball and the pitch had both reached tipping point. As it happens so often in the subcontinent, one wicket brought more, and the Kiwi line-up realised the value of a set batsman on this pitch.
To say it was Ashwin's day would be an understatement. With six wickets, and a hand (literally!) in two run-outs, he had contributed to all but two of New Zealand's wickets. But if he was given the choice to take one of those dismissals home and frame it on his mantlepiece, it would be that of Kane Williamson. In every innings in this series, Ashwin has gotten Williamson in a manner that would have fellow off-spinners going weak in the legs. To exploit what little rough there was outside the right hander's off-stump, he landed the ball slightly wider than his usual areas, and got it to turn sharply into the New Zealand skipper, who edged it onto his stumps.
The ball to dismiss Williamson was the widest delivery bowled to him by any bowler. #IndvNZ
— The Cricket Prof. (@CricProf) October 10, 2016
It would not be surprising if Ashwin's childhood coach turned out to be an old-school curmudgeon, whose pedagogy involved being stingy with praise and generous with his cane. Such coaches would only acknowledge a wicket if it satisfied two conditions: First, it should be of the best batter in the opposition. And second, that it be either bowled, LBW, or caught behind. Ashwin ticked both boxes, and has done so throughout this series. This was the second time Ashwin had castled Williamson, the third dismissal being LBW.
Ashwin not only outdid the opposition, but also his compatriots. His average bowling speed was considerably slower than Jadeja's, often dipping under the 80 kmph mark. He cajoled turn and bounce from the wicket, slowly, with the patience of a gardener waiting for a flower to bloom. Once it did, he ran through the New Zealand batting, to register his 20th five wicket haul in tests, making him the third fastest cricketer to 20 five-wicket hauls.
"It takes me five to six overs to get into rhythm nowadays," said an ebullient Ashwin after the day's play. "But once I do, once the body starts moving well, I get more body on the ball."
For New Zealand, there was some reason to cheer as Guptill finally registered his first 50 of the tour, playing with none of the somnolence of the previous Tests. Benefiting from the best of batting conditions (when the ball was new and turn consistent) and a dropped chance (by Rahane at gully), he scored 52 of his 72 runs in boundaries.
But when Ashwin got his fingertips to a ball that Luke Ronchi hit straight at the opposite stumps, Guptill was sent back. Jimmy Neesham, coming back into the New Zealand side after missing the first two Tests with a freak injury, showed just how much value he adds with the bat, accumulating a patient 71. After Ashwin ended his resistance, New Zealand enjoyed even more bad luck, Jeetan Patel was run out as pathetically as Guptill.
At the end of the innings, Kohli surprised some by batting again. "We're giving the wicket the best possible chance of wearing down," said Ashwin of the decision.
The New Zealand bowlers must have been uneasy putting their boots on barely 24 hours after hanging them up. And their batters will sleep even more restlessly tonight, with the thought of having to face Ashwin in the fourth innings intruding their sweet dreams.