Kane Williamson went back in his crease, and attempted a glance. Only, the ball was too quick off the surface, and came in sharply. Ravichandran Ashwin went up in appeal, as did his teammates.
With them, the 22,000 people gathered at the Green Park Stadium went up in unison. When the finger went up to give the off-spinner his 200th Test wicket, the roar only got louder as the most important batsman in the opposition ranks had been sent packing. This was Test cricket, in India, at its most intimidating best.
Sunday in Kanpur was all about cricket. Schoolkids in uniforms, whether bunking or on group leave, were not to be seen. Instead, children came with their parents; daughters with mothers, sons with fathers, and in some cases, the entire family for a weekend jaunt at the park. Spurious merchandise sellers made a killing, and for the first time in four days, the stadium was full.
India batted for two sessions at a snail’s pace, almost as if they were playing to the gallery. There seemed to be no hurry about their play, even as the debate raged on whether they had enough runs on the board already. Such occasions make for an interesting read into the mind of skipper Virat Kohli.
The declaration debate
The stamp of aggression is forever stuck on him, and every decision he makes is judged in that light. It is unfair, because this trait doesn’t always need to be showcased with an in-your-face attitude. It can also be judged in the manner you set up the game for your bowlers. Perhaps that is the best marker of Kohli’s aggressive captaincy, for he firmly believes in the adage that taking 20 wickets is the prime target in Test cricket. Sure, bowlers need time, three, maybe four sessions, sometimes more on unfavourable pitches.
Kohli believes in giving them an extra edge. Much like in the third Test against West Indies, he went for a safe declaration, thus taking away the shock element from the match. Furthermore, in using up time and delaying just a tad, he also makes the draw option unviable. The opposition needs to bat longer, battler harder, while his bowlers can bowl with a free mind.
As in St Lucia, so in Kanpur then, India were primed for a win when the declaration came. Simple because there was too much time left in the match for the opposition to draw the game, let alone dream of causing an upset.
Rohit Sharma. Finally.
The delayed declaration also allowed Rohit Sharma to get some much-needed runs under his belt. Now, his half-century was not scored in his typical style. For example, he did not hit a single six, even when Ravindra Jadeja was going hammer and tongs at the other end. It is not to say that his instinct had not allowed him to play those shots. Instead, cynics might argue that he was playing for his spot in the eleven, having thrown away his wicket in the first innings at a crucial juncture.
It could be a correct argument, and yet even if Rohit was playing an atypical innings for his own benefit, it showcased a particular aspect of his batting. That he does possess slower gears, and the ability to turn down that want of unnecessary acceleration. That he can mellow down, run the hard ones and twos, and still maintain a strike-rate of 73.11, without undue risk.
So, the burning question, then, is: why does he not do it more often?
The magic of Ravichandran Ashwin
There is only one successful 350-plus run-chase in Test cricket in India, and an overseas team did not achieve it. The hosts scored 387/4 in Chennai against England in 2008. Furthermore, India scored 350-plus twice (364/6 against Pakistan in 1978 and 355/8 against West Indies in 1949).
The long time gaps obviously reflect how tough it is to score here in the fourth innings. If that is not sufficient, the highest fourth innings total at Kanpur is 240 runs, again by India, versus West Indies in 1958. Clearly, New Zealand were in a losing battle from ball one of Day 4.
Yet, it was not about the 434-run target, or whether they could get it (or not). It was about following up on their resistance in the first innings and delaying the inevitable. It was about whether the Indian spinners had found a way past the visitors’ top-order. In light of a flailing Kiwi tail, that aspect held the key for the remainder of this series.
Ashwin answered it in affirmative, en-route to becoming the quickest Indian – and second-quickest overall – bowler to 200 Test wickets. In the press conference post day’s play, he talked about the time when he had to sit on the bench, primarily during India’s overseas run in 2013-14. “It was a very tough time for me, and it taught me to concentrate on my skills. I have done that, and they have been talked up ever since,” he said.
It was in the Brisbane Test on the 2014-15 Australian tour that Ashwin had returned to the Test eleven, and has been never left out again. It has been a journey of self evaluation, preservation and growth, all encapsulated within this short span of 37 Tests.
Today, he is a complete spinner, someone who understands his ability and knows how to express it, depending on the conditions available to him. And, in five Tests already this year, he has been ever-present for India.
On day five then, backed by a vociferous crowd, Ashwin will begin his journey to the next milestone.