Hyderabad: New Zealand’s worst fears came true at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium. It was only a day two surface and there was neither diabolical turn nor dramatic bounce, but at the first hint of turn, New Zealand’s fragile top order came unstuck to firmly propel India into the driver’s seat in the first Test.
If the first day had been dominated by Cheteshwar Pujara, then it was the turn of R Ashwin to propel himself into the forefront on the second day. Pujara kicked on from his overnight 119 to make a classy, supremely impressive 159. Alongside Mahendra Singh Dhoni, he added 127 for the sixth wicket, India kicking on from 307 for five to post 438.
India might have been disappointed at not adding a few more to their final tally, but Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha would have taken heart from four wickets for Jeetan Patel, the offspinner. Admittedly, figures of 4 for 100 did slightly flatter Patel, but it was obvious that there was some purchase for him even this early in the Test match.
Ashwin, who made a fine 37 and spent an hour and a quarter at the batting crease, had had a very close look at the pitch, no slower than the previous day but definitely providing more encouragement for the spinners. Having warmed up with a nice cameo, he wreaked havoc with the ball, procuring not inconsiderable turn in fading light to knock the stuffing out of the New Zealand top.
Not until Kane Williamson, who made a century on Test debut against India at Ahmedabad in November 2010, and James Franklin engaged themselves in a stand of 44 did New Zealand’s innings find some stability but India struck a body blow when Ojha had Williamson caught on the cut with three overs left. New Zealand stumbled to 106 for five at stumps but still trailing by 332 runs.
Ashwin has a considerably versatile bag of tricks but during his brief Test career, that has also proved his undoing. On Friday’s evidence, he is no longer a man in a hurry. He is willing to wait for his wickets, doesn’t unleash every single variation in one over, and has realised that his stock delivery has to be the offbreak.
It was the offbreak that brought him rich rewards. Martin Guptill, struggling for timing and looking nothing like the batsman who made three half-centuries in four innings in the West Indies last month, was dismissed by Ashwin’s first ball, caught off the inside edge at leg slip by Virat Kohli. Ross Taylor fell to the same combination, Kohli taking a low, sharp catch to his left at the same position. It required several replays for Vineet Kulkarni, the third umpire, to adjudge that Kohli had taken the catch cleanly, a decision that didn’t please Taylor or the Kiwis too much.
Where Williamson was a picture of composure, Daniel Flynn’s desire to hit his way out of trouble was always going to be fraught with danger, especially with the sweep being his go-to stroke. It didn’t take Ashwin long to trap him on the sweep, at which stage he had incredible figures of 3 for 5 from 4.1 overs.
It was Ojha who had procured the initial breakthrough, having Brendon McCullum caught by Kohli with his third delivery. McCullum had begun brightly, cover-driving the first delivery of the innings from Zaheer Khan for four and looking to be his normal attacking self. Ironically, it was his intent to impose himself on the bowling that lured him to his doom. Without having seen what help was on offer for Ojha, he went for an extravagant drive to a beautifully flighted delivery. McCullum did get to the pitch of the ball, but it turned away a shade to skew off the outer half to cover, setting the stage for Ashwin to step in and do his thing.
All this was after Pujara and Dhoni had put in the hard yards in the morning session, which began 26 minutes late due to inclement weather. The second new ball was only seven overs old and this was India’s last recognised pair, so the duo took its time in overcast conditions even though there wasn’t much swing for Chris Martin, Trent Boult or Doug Bracewell.
Pujara, who has four triple centuries at various levels for Saurashtra, was as fluent as he had been on the first day, even if he reined in positive intent to a large degree. He serenely went past 150 as he and Dhoni were unseparated at lunch, but India lost their way in trying to force the pace in the second session.
A rare loose stroke from Pujara brought New Zealand their first success of the day. Stepping out to drive Patel over mid-on, Pujara saw his swirling, skied miscue neatly taken by a back-pedalling Franklin. A pat on the shoulder from Dhoni and a standing ovation from 9000 fans did little to allay his disappointment, but Pujara had no reason to believe he had let anyone down.
Dhoni, jerky in defence but brutal in attack, too perished in trying to up the ante but Ashwin batted intelligently to boost the Indian tally. New Zealand winkled out India’s last five for 51; little would they have imagined then that their first four wickets would yield only 55.