Cricket News By TODAYLIVESCORE.INFO - Saha, Ashwin headline another lower-order bailout. India were placed at a precarious 51/5 before lower-order fightback put them in pole position
India were placed at a precarious 51/5 before lower-order fightback put them in pole position
For the second time in the Kanpur Test, debutant Shreyas Iyer was left to mop up some early mess for India. On Day 1, he'd walked out at 82 for 2 and watched India slip into an uncomfortable chasm at 145 for 4 as Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson worked their way through what has been India's part-makeshift, part-brittle top-order. India's two most experienced batsmen in the Test formed the latter, and were undone by smartly laid out plans from two of New Zealand's most effective bowlers in the fixture.
On Sunday too, Shreyas watched on as Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – with experience of 90 and 78 Tests respectively – couldn't hold fort when they needed to the most. It took one little length variation from Kyle Jamieson to unsettle Pujara – a flurry of length balls on the body followed by an angled-in short one, while Rahane just played down the wrong line, anticipating turn on a slider from Ajaz Patel. There was more misery to unfold in Shreyas's helpless view, as Southee's swing and angle pushed India down to a very shaky 51 for 5, the lead only at 100 and New Zealand then smelling blood.
2021 has been a feisty year for India in Tests. Getting back on their feet after the lows of 36 all out (in December 2020) was the brightest star on the shoulders of the outgoing support staff under Ravi Shastri. It was almost as if that humbling experience in Adelaide brought a sense of grittiness which has remained a template throughout what will easily go down as one of the team's most memorable years in the longest format.
Through the wins in Australia and against England at home and away, a common template was how consistently the tail managed to chip in and frustrate. Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar, Ravichandran Ashwin and even Jasprit Bumrah have 50-plus scores in Tests this year, while Mohammed Shami too has been immensely entertaining and effective with the bat without a milestone to show for it. It's been the result of a systematic training approach that with time has added to India's efficacy in this format, evident through their successful run in the first cycle of the World Test Championship.
“There's been a deliberate effort on our side that we've been trying to give them [lower-order batsmen] a lot more batting whenever we've been having nets,” batting coach Vikram Rathour said. “That's what we've been doing for the past few years now. We've been giving a lot of batting to all our tailenders and bowlers so I think that strategy is paying off. They're working hard, they're giving their best and understanding how important it is for the tail to contribute.
“We've been on the suffering side mostly in the recent past, where the other teams have done that against us. After picking four-five wickets, the other teams have managed to put out big totals on the board. It's good to see that we're doing that now and doing it repeatedly,” Rathour added.
So, 51 for 5 was both precarious and familiar at the same time. But Wriddhiman Saha's neck stiffness, that kept him out of the field during New Zealand's innings, made Ashwin's role with the bat a touch more significant. He walked in having already made a vital and breezy 38 in the first innings, and needed to bat time once again.
Southee was in the midst of a spell where he was able to squeeze out every last ounce of help from the pitch and conditions and mix it up with his immaculate Test match skills in search of breakthroughs. He got two in the same over in the form of Mayank and Jadeja, but Ashwin, who had the measure of Southee even in the first innings, continued to be on top of this mini-tussle.
Southee went wide off the crease, placed a fielder at deep square leg and tried a few bumpers at Ashwin, in futility. In the first dig, Ashwin hit 23 off the 21 balls he faced from Southee, including four of his five boundaries – and casually resumed that control. It enabled India to head to Lunch without further damage and regroup before rebuilding in the immensely crucial second session.
Ashwin was in an identical situation on Day 2, only to fall against the run of play on the second ball post-lunch, to an ordinary ball from Ajaz Patel. He guarded better against such a possible pitfall this time around to continue India's slow climb from 88 for 5. Shreyas was still the protagonist of this Indian effort but needed, in equal measure, strong late-order allies.
Ashwin proved to be one, even as he negotiated with Rachin Ravindra's probing lengths after the break before being slightly at ease against Southee. It took a sudden bit of extra bounce for Jamieson to shake Ashwin out of his batting rhythm, which was starting to look even better than the first innings. An attempted backfoot drive to cover ended up going off the inside edge and doing just enough to knock one bail off its groove, leaving India on 103 for 6 – with the lead still only at 152.
But out stepped a stiff-necked Wriddhiman Saha to add to the now-famous gritty folklore. Saha played with an open stance, possibly to sooth his neck movements while batting, that were rather restrictive.
“He had a really, really stiff neck and he was definitely struggling,” Rathour revealed. “But knowing Saha, who is an ideal team man… we knew if we needed him, he was going to do whatever is required to be in there and do the tough thing for the team, which he did today.
“He played an extremely important knock at the stage that the team was at that point. And that is what I think all of us expect from Wriddhi, he's always been that kind of a person who you can count on and today he showed why we have that kind of belief in him.”
The Kanpur Test was Saha's first outing since that ill-fated Adelaide fixture of December 2020. A hamstring injury in that game pushed him to the sidelines then, but Rishabh Pant's bouncebackability since an underwhelming 2019 has kept Saha there since.
“Unfortunately for Wriddhi, we have an extremely special player in Rishabh Pant who is the number one keeper of the team and he's done extremely well for us in the past few years,” Rathour admitted. “That's the role Wriddhi has at the moment, he's there whenever we need him. Whenever Pant is not available. And again he showed today with the kind of knock he played, how important he is to the team and how good he is.”
Curiously, New Zealand had started to spread their fields, with the spinners not aiming to attack with catchers around the bat. Instead, Kane Williamson seemed intent on limiting easy runs, making life slightly simpler for a batsman who was out there with a bit of a physical limitation. Shreyas Iyer looked even better than he did during his maiden century effort, coolly becoming the first Indian player to score a century and a fifty on Test debut – the first to do so since Faf du Plessis in 2012.
The middle-session where New Zealand were expected to pile on India's early misery, turned in the complete opposite direction through two stands that Shreyas stitched with Ashwin and Saha. Even as Shreyas fell at the stroke of Tea, New Zealand had the chance to keep their target under 250. But Axar Patel wasn't done tormenting them, as he and Saha added to the resilience in the final session. Saha righted the wrongs of the first innings where he went chasing after a Southee delivery that he could've left, and ensured he always got well behind the line this time. His stoic effort led him to his sixth half-century – one that could go down as a vital cog in India pocketing all 12 points tomorrow.