New Zealand applied a strategic choke on the Indian top order in the second innings and in the process edged ahead in the first Test.
In space of six balls, Trent Boult changed his mode of attack from over the wicket to around three times. Kane Williamson employed three short covers for Cheteshwar Pujara. Prithvi Shaw had a man stationed at squarish leg-gully. Tim Southee released all his six balls from different points on the crease. Are all of these peculiar tactics? Not if you are New Zealand playing on home soil.
The Black Caps applied a strategic choke on the Indian top order in the second innings and in the process edged ahead in the first Test. Day three was all about New Zealand playing the game on their merit and understanding local conditions to perfection.
At stumps, India reached 144-4 in 65 overs, a run-rate of 2.21, a sound reflection on how well New Zealand had executed their plans. Like all the Basin Reserve surfaces, the pitch had lost its zip, it was slow, not conducive for stroke-making and apart from the odd delivery lifting sharply there was nothing in it for bowlers. One had to be creative to pick up wickets.
Away teams can get deflated with such surfaces, but New Zealand have made it a habit of bringing the game to life by adopting out-of-the-box tactics. It all started with Shaw. The dynamic opener had a short mid-wicket and a short cover in place from the outset. Boult and Southee kept drawing him forward and blocked his drives either side of the wicket. It took the naturally aggressive Shaw 23 balls to hit his first boundary. The minute Williamson sensed Shaw had shifted his mindset to being aggressive, Boult went around the wicket, a squarish leg-gully was employed and the ball was angled into body. New Zealand knew Shaw would look to flick the ball through the leg-side, he did exactly that and the ball went straight to the man perfectly positioned purely for the shot.
Pujara was confronted with three men in the covers, a mid-off, a short mid-wicket, and a straight mid-on as Colin Grandhomme nibbled his outswingers on the line of off-stump. De Grandhomme followed this approach for five consecutive overs. Importantly, de Grandhomme was bowling into the wind, a role he has mastered in the past two years. Bowling into the breeze is such a dedicated role at the Basin Reserve and none of the Indian bowlers managed to accomplish that task.
While De Grandhomme nibbled away into the stiff wind. Boult and Kyle Jamieson used the short ball to put the clamp on Pujara. The bouncer has become such a vital cog in New Zealand's thinking because rather than using it as a wicket-taking ball, it is used as a defensive method to stop the batsmen scoring. This mode of attack continued for close to an hour and led to Pujara failing to score for 31 consecutive balls. Then at the stroke of tea, after battering Pujara with bouncers from over the wicket, Boult switched to around the wicket. He also changed his length to full and caused the Indian No.3 to shoulder arms to a ball that came in with the angle to crash into his off-stump. It was a brilliant set-up and another example of how a small tweak in approach at the right time can undo even the best in the business.
The short ball theory was back in place for Kohli. The Indian captain is a great puller or hooker of the ball, but given the precarious situation and the field set, he started to ride the short ball or duck under it. It made sense, as with a leg-gully, a square leg and two men out deep, the maximum Kohli was going to score off the ball was a single, unless he pulled well in front of square, a difficult task given the line of attack was at his left armpit. Perhaps on a true pitch, Kohli would have taken on the short ball, but this is New Zealand and the while the pitch is slow, the bounce is inconsistent and attempting to pull the ball is a difficult proposition. Add to that is it really worth the risk given India's position in the match?
Kohli decided to play it safe for a while, but somewhere his instincts had to take over and he finally succumbed to gloving a short ball to BJ Watling. In between Mayank Agarwal also fell to the around the wicket line, by glancing a full ball to the keeper. All four Indian wickets had fallen to the around the wicket tactic.
The Black Caps bowlers' method of constantly changing the line of attack, quirky field placements mixed with the short ball ploy had stifled the Indian batting. Not only was it a deliberate strategy, but one New Zealand has mastered, especially at home. At the end of the day, there is nothing like a home advantage as Black Caps proved on Day 3.
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