In recent times, whenever we have had Test cricket on Indian soil, the spinners have dominated proceedings. Indian batsmen, as well as the ones touring have come to face a highly unequal state of affairs in terms of pitches on offer. The pacers have often been sidelined, unless reverse swing comes into play.
Sunday, at Eden Gardens, was a welcome departure from this trend. As play got underway, the Indian bowlers showed the same desperation New Zealand had shown on Day Two, in a bid to get the tail out quickly. Jeetan Patel had other ideas though, as he swung his bat around for a while.
Ashwin bowled only eight overs in New Zealand’s first innings, perhaps the least he will bowl in the first innings of a Test in this long home season. Yet he got the breakthrough from the partnership between Patel and BJ Watling that threatened to bloat. His delivery to Patel, one that drifted away after pitching, showcased enough that the pitch had become a tad slower, given this was the third morning.There was variable bounce on offer though, and it had enough for the pacers. Perhaps Virat Kohli missed a trick herein, as he used Ravindra Jadeja in between turning his pacers around. Ashwin ought to have bowled more. Mohammed Shami though, like Saha on Day Two, is no stranger to this ground. He knows the angles well, where to bowl from (changed ends twice in this innings), and when reverse swing didn’t kick in (the ball was changed thanks to Patel’s hitting), he used conventional movement to get the batsmen out. And yet, his burst was only a precursor of things to come, even as India gained a healthy lead. If Saturday evening was about a swing bowler finding a perfect setting and turning the magic on, then Sunday afternoon was a bit of resemblance, only the pacers on show didn’t know the conditions as well. For New Zealand’s fast bowlers, these arid pitches are a far cry from the juicy wickets at home. But a good carpenter never argues with his tools, instead uses what he has to good effect. Matt Henry and Trent Boult had the new ball, and a pitch with variable bounce.
Boult made Shikhar Dhawan dance to the short stuff. Henry put the ball on a string, and got Murali Vijay in the same manner as in the first innings: outswing, on the off stump, and edged. He then brought one in to trap Cheteshwar Pujara leg before, and then hurried Ajinkya Rahane with bounce, a pull shot, one he wasn’t in control of, out caught in the deep. India were in trouble at 43-4, but it was beautiful. It was fast bowling in sub-continental conditions at its best. The ball can outweigh the bat only for so long nowadays, however, and then two batsmen came to the fore for India. First, it was the Indian skipper, hell bent on not throwing his wicket away with another aggressive shot. Against the pacers, he was eager to leave as many balls as possible. Against the spinners, he used his feet.
He caressed one off Jeetan Patel through covers. He punched Neil Wagner down the ground, an on-drive through vacant mid-on. Thereafter, came the shot of the day, as he flicked Patel again, this time between mid-wicket and mid-on. Three boundaries to get him back in the groove of Test cricket, but it wasn’t to be. One from Boult kept low, too low, and he was gone, plumb lbw. Mind you, on any other day, this short innings could have been a master-class on how to bat on such a pitch. But for Rohit Sharma, who managed to outshine the rest of the Indian batting. Perhaps he has a mystical bond with Eden Gardens that he plays innings of great significance here: that ODI double hundred, or his maiden Test century in a pressure situation against the West Indies in 2013. Pressure was intense on Sunday too, with the lead just standing at 155 runs, when he came to the crease. That he stroked his way to an effortless half-century was a rarity by his temperamental standards. Usually he tends to fritter away his wicket; he did so in the first innings in Kolkata. But in the second innings at Kanpur, something had looked different in his demeanour, and it was replicated at the Eden Gardens too. He didn’t give a chance to the New Zealand bowlers, and that is an underlying point of immense value. The closest he came was when a diving effort from Boult at mid-off was just short of the aerial shot off Mitchell Santner. It is not to say that he wasn’t beaten at times, no. Yet, on a pitch where the Indian top-order folded like the proverbial pack of cards, Rohit batted for 214 minutes and held the innings together. On a wicket topsy-turvy bounce had rattled every batsman since ball one in the morning, Rohit batted as if it was a stroll in the park. Lazy elegance, you got it. Just turning up for net practice, as Ian Chappell would say, indeed! The shots came out when others struggled to get going. While Kohli’s boundaries seemed an effort, he pulled and deposited Boult for a six at square leg. Maybe it was Rohit batting as usual, without a care in the world and it clicked on Sunday, to the cheers of the Indian dressing room. Maybe it was just an aberration. It was inexplicable really, because after so many disappointments, expectations from him have fallen low. Surely, it was a reminder of how things should have been.