The American novelist, Jack London, wrote a short story called “A Piece of Steak” about an old boxer who was fighting a young and upcoming fighter. The old boxer tried all his tricks to defeat the young man, but he just couldn’t quite land the knock out blow.
The first match in the India vs New Zealand Test series ended similarly.
Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, with over 500 international cricket matches between them, brought to the fore every bit of skill and experience to tackle Ajaz Patel and Rachin Ravindra, who have a collective international experience of 34 matches. But no matter what the two veterans tried, Patel and Ravindra managed to find a way to keep at it.
The match may be summarized in a lot of ways but this stands to be the gist of it - two heavyweight teams, both looking for a knock-out punch, but neither able to find it.
The process, however, resulted in an absorbing contest that will live on in the memory of the audience for a long time.
In a lot of ways this was a suitable result for a game played by the top two ranked teams, on a pitch that offered something for everyone -- but not too much.
The match started badly for New Zealand. Kane Williamson lost the toss, and the Black Caps were put to field. Many pundits (myself included) had said that New Zealand had a chance to beat India, given everything went just right. Half an hour before the first ball was to be bowled, something had already gone wrong.
But New Zealand was not quick to drop their heads. Instead, they produced some quality bowling to have India at 154/4 at the first tea break.
New Zealand had turned the tables on India and were now looking for a decisive blow.
But one of the Indian batsmen at the crease then was Shreyas Iyer, a debutant. Just like the old boxer in London’s story struggled to land the knock out punch, New Zealand could not dislodge him. The young man played an outstanding innings, and carried India through to a respectable total.
Next it was New Zealand’s turn to bat.
And another young player stepped up. Will Young, this time around, denied India's bowling veterans an opening for over 4 hours. New Zealand had an opening partnership that had scored almost half of India’s total. Surely now New Zealand were going to go on and score 500+ and bat India out of the match.
Except that’s not how it happened at all.
New Zealand went searching for the knock out blow, and instead copped a barrage from India, particularly the youngest member of the bowling attack, Axar Patel. New Zealand scored 151 runs without losing a wicket, but then lost all 10 while only adding another 145 runs.
The game twisted and turned. The fortunes waxed and waned. India took a small lead into the second innings.
Just over an hour and a half after India took the lead, they were on the ropes. New Zealand had picked up 5 wickets for only 51 runs. India were effectively 100/5, with almost two full days to play.
Normally this is the sort of position where a team would attack with lots of players around the bat. But that sort of tactic carries with it a certain risk. Anytime you put a fielder in close, you have to take them from a run-saving position. Kane Williamson did not want to give India any room to counter-attack at all.
But in trying to not give India any space, New Zealand did the exact opposite to what they wanted to do. They let the pressure dwindle.
Iyer marshalled the lower order players with the sort of skill that Steve Waugh or VVS Laxman used to do. The young man evaded every attempt of New Zealand’s to knock India out and the pressure took a U-turn.
Instead of talking to each other to try to encourage an extra wicket, the New Zealand fielders were starting to try to take time out of the game. In the meanwhile, India were building a good score.
The game had swung again.
India declared, looking to force a victory.
Then, as the light faded, Will Young was dismissed through a combination of a horrendously bad umpiring decision, matched only by the completely ineptness of batsmen to challenge the decision within the timeframe.
Surely that was it. New Zealand could not survive a whole day with just 9 wickets in hand. It was just a matter of time when.
Or was it?
Will Somerville, the night watchman, who has a domestic first class average of less than 18 runs per dismissal, embraced the bat stupendously. After an hour and a half, he was still at the crease. He achieved something that very few specialist bowlers have ever done — he batted out a full session in the 4th innings of a match.
Now, New Zealand needed only 205 runs, from 2 full sessions, and they still had 9 wickets in hand.
Perhaps the knockout blow was going to come now.
Yet again, the first ball after lunch rewrote the course of the game. Somerville was dismissed and Kane Williamson graced the crease.
India knew that Williamson did not want to take risks, so they tried to bowl dry to him, and the strategy worked.
Williamson and Latham batted together for 19 overs, but only added 39 runs. The chance of New Zealand's victory was all but gone.
Now New Zealand needed to hang on. And India needed wickets.
India started to get wickets, and they got them quickly. Fifteen overs after being 118/2, New Zealand were 128/6. At the wicket were the young Wellington pair of Rachin Ravindra and Tom Blundell. They stretched forward in defence, smothering the ball as much as possible.
For 30 minutes they denied India, but a freak dismissal — a perfectly defended ball jumped back off the footmarks into Blundell’s stumps.
Jamieson too followed suit not too long after, followed by Southee.
Thus, the final wicket pair were at the crease while the light faded. There are men around the bat. It only needs one ball.
Between each over the umpires checked the light meters and were not necessarily coming to New Zealand’s aid.
With the experienced pair of Ashwin and Jadeja at the bowling crease, the inexperienced pair from New Zealand stood between India and victory.
But lo and behold, India failed to deliver the knock out blow.
The match closed with a draw. But it was not just any draw, it was a draw of high quality, intense cricket between two teams who threw everything at each other, but could not quite find the hook.
Perhaps that will happen next week.
Michael Wagener is a cricket tragic from New Zealand. He discovered early on that he would never be an expert at playing cricket, so set out to be an expert at watching it.
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