That India were one wicket away from winning the first Test against the world champions was testament to their tenacity and skills, but there’s work yet to be done.
The constant drone of trumpets and conches at Green Park in Kanpur attempted to infiltrate the haze of weariness that set in from months of back-to-back cricket. The England series, the IPL, the T20 World Cup… there was simply so much of it. But what unfolded over five absorbing days of the India vs New Zealand Test was an exhibition of cricket that served, ironically, almost as an antidote to the cricket overdose.
In the languor of winter, rhythms slowed, teams reset. Batters and bowlers settled in for the long haul — if not on the field, then on the comfortable recliners outside the dressing rooms. As the game went the distance, patience became a virtue and competitors were challenged to out-think and out-last the other.
It took till the final hour of the final session for this slow burner of a Test to truly heat up. At the finish, India needed just one wicket for victory, but the world champions were resolute under fading light to hold out for a draw.
While it might seem like an opportunity missed for India to consolidate their place on the World Test Championship rankings, that the hosts even ran the current champions so close is testament to their tenacity and skills in the format.
The stereotype is that Tests in India follow a template: bat big, maybe just even once, and bowl the other team out with spin as the surfaces crumble and spit and turn; batters, most likely from the opposition, fall to either the demons in their head or in the pitch. While this, like most stereotypes, is reductive, it can be partially supported by some facts: Since 2018, out of 12 Tests featuring India, seven have been innings victories, three by margins of over 200 runs and the other two by 10 wickets. Since 2010, spinners, who strike every 73.2 balls in the first innings in India, see their strike-rate reduce to 53.3 in the third innings and 49.1 in the fourth.
Looking simply at the scorecard of the Kanpur Test, it might seem like this formula was repeated, only for the Indian spinners to fail to close out the game. But the reality was that the pitch at Green Park tore up the template. Instead, the Indian bowlers rose to the occasion to take nine wickets on a fifth-day surface their coach described as “unresponsive”.
“The facts of the pitch were that it was low and slow, didn’t have that much bounce, didn’t have turn. You expect a little bit more wear and tear on these wickets in Indian conditions over five days. It just didn’t seem to have that kind of bite,” Rahul Dravid, the India coach, said.
If it sounds like a complaint about the conditions, it wasn’t one at all; Dravid was simply hailing the fighting effort of his team. In fact, he reportedly contributed Rs 35,000 to the groundsmen for their work on a pitch that lasted the distance.
“Generally in India, on day five you can challenge both edges — both the outside edge for the catches and you can beat the inside edge for the lbws,” Dravid explained. “But in this game, the outside edge was virtually ruled out. Even on the last day, none of the edges carried … Maybe it’s the winter, but it felt like if (the batter) wanted to block and didn’t want to score runs, it was difficult to get people out.
“(But) we had quality guys who were able to make a game of this, otherwise this could have easily gone on to become a dull draw.”
For India, foremost in making a potentially dull draw a thrilling one instead were still the spinners, who took 17 of the 19 New Zealand wickets to fall in the match. Dravid explained that bowled or lbw seemed to be the only likely dismissals in these conditions. Accordingly, six batters were out lbw in the last innings — only the third time India has had as many such dismissals in a Test.
“The beauty of Test cricket is that you need to want it,” off-spinner R Ashwin, who picked up six wickets in the match, told the host broadcaster. “It's really hard, it's not one of those formats where you turn up, have a good day, have a good four-over bowl or have a good 20-overs bat. There is a lot of pain, there is a lot of hard work, there's a lot of tenacity you need to bring into play."
And over five days, nobody perhaps wanted it more than Ashwin. On a surface that was far from a spitting, turning, spin-friendly dustbowl, Ashwin brought all his skill and smarts. He used the crease, he created angles, he tried new ones. He varied his seam position, he got drift and he tested the batters’ edges. And when on day five the slowness of the surface allowed the batters more time to adjust, he still provoked some doubt.
In New Zealand’s first innings, Axar Patel, the left-arm spinner, was as astute in using the crease, varying his pace and creating “something”, as he put it, with a round-arm action. In their second, Ravindra Jadeja’s faster left-arm spin with good drift and slight turn accounted for four batters and gave India a sniff.
So, if India must bemoan something about this drawn Test, it’s not the bowling that failed to take the last New Zealand wicket, as much as their own second-inning batting collapse on day four.
New Zealand’s bowlers, especially their seamers, were as clever as India’s in making the most of the surface to have India struggling at 51/5. It was only Shreyas Iyer’s half-century and stubborn lower-order partnerships that allowed India to declare after fighting to a competitive total. This after Iyer’s first-innings hundred on debut, with more support from the lower order.
Alarmingly for India, such batting woes also seem to be an unwanted template this year. The lower order batters (No.6-11) average 26.32 in home Tests in 2021 – a number that makes the top order’s average of 30.47 look decidedly lacklustre. Veterans Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara especially did little in the first Test to silence their critics.
The batting performance leaves the selectors with some selection headaches for the Mumbai Test. Circumstance and injuries conspired to give Iyer his unexpected debut, but with his performance, he becomes hard to drop when Virat Kohli returns. Opener Mayank Agarwal might well make way, but Rahane will be feeling the pressure as well.
“We'll have to wait and see till the Mumbai game, I am not going to make any comments,” said Rahane after the match, insisting it was up to the management to make the big selection calls.
But with the bowlers having done their bit in Kanpur, the focus will rightly be on the batting in Mumbai as India aim to keep their proud home record alive.
Karunya Keshav is an independent journalist and co-author of ‘The Fire Burns Blue – A history of women’s cricket in India’.
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