On Sunday, a few days before Durga Puja kicks off in Kolkata, about 20,000 people came to watch the second Test between India and New Zealand at Eden Gardens.
It is a sizeable crowd for most stadiums in New Zealand, even Australia and England, definitely in West Indies and South Africa. Yet, the picture at this historic ground was of a vast emptiness, and only a few dots of spectators sprinkled here and there. It was frustrating knowing the reality of the situation.
Even Ashwin can be under-bowled
Time and again, Indian cricketers have pointed out in the post play press conference that this is an atypical Kolkata pitch. The bounce is variable; from one end, the ball was just rearing up from widening cracks, and from the other, it was keeping too low.
This is not a spinner’s wicket though. Throughout the game, pacers have held fray. It was the first time since the Bangalore Test against Australia in 2008 when Indian pacers took eight or more wickets in an innings of a home Test. This stat shows how the quicker bowlers will continue to hold fray as the match progresses.
Even so, it was a bit surprising that Ravichandran Ashwin bowled only eight overs in the New Zealand innings. Will he bowl any less in any other first innings of the remaining 11 home Tests this season? That is highly unlikely, and yet Virat Kohli missed a trick by using Ravindra Jadeja more.
The left-arm spinner was frustrated that the Eden pitch did not give him enough purchase off the surface. Meanwhile, Ashwin came on and broke the irritating partnership evolving between Jeetan Patel and BJ Watling immediately. It was a delivery with enough drift, showcasing how the spinner could have been more useful on this pitch. The fierce competitor that he is, he ought to be frustrated that he did not bowl more.
Matt Henry and Virat Kohli play out a master-class
The second session was an intense battle between bat and ball. Or, one should say the new ball. With the shining red cherry in hand, Matt Henry and Trent Boult rocked the Indian top-order. 43/4 was the score at one point, reflecting India’s frailties with the bat in this series and previously too.
In four innings this series, there have been three and a half collapses. Never mind the washed-out fourth Test in Trinidad, stretch this run further back, and another one and a half collapses in St Lucia. In fact, even though the whole West Indies’ tour, the batting never really clicked as a whole. It was Kohli, KL Rahul or Ashwin scoring timely hundreds to pull the team out of trouble. When will this trend end?
Meanwhile, Henry’s arrival has given a fillip to the New Zealand bowling attack. He can move the ball both ways and at a good pace, and used the cracks on the pitch to optimal effect. The delivery that dismissed Murali Vijay was a peach; good length, just leaving the batsman and edged, twice in two innings. Henry had his number, and decimated the Indian top-order. He must be frustrated that their attack could not sustain it in the next session.
It was largely down to Kohli. The Indian skipper seemed adamant in not playing another shot that he should not be playing, that he wanted to return to proper Test cricket mode, grind it out in the middle. And he did so, leaving enough balls, using his feet and doing the basics right. The shots flowed of course, but then the pitch got the better off him. A plumb lbw, as the ball didn not even bounce high enough to get to his knee-roll. Boy, he must be frustrated on missing out and breaking his poor run of form.
A special from Rohit Sharma (yes, you read that right)
Kohli’s knock was brilliant. On a pitch where batsmen were afflicted through the day, he showed immense patience. There were moments where he went for his aggressive shots, but curbed them enough to nearly get a half-century. It was not enough, and the need of the hour was that someone played a better knock.
Surprisingly enough, Rohit Sharma did. How could he not, for this is Eden Gardens, where the ball just kisses his bat and rests only after it touches the boundary!
It is not to say that he played a better knock than Kohli, no. The skipper’s effort was sheer hard work; Sharma's innings was more fluent. Was it graceful enough? Perhaps, for there were enough plays and misses. Was it impactful though? Truly, for the batsman looked at ease on a pitch where in-form Vijay and Pujara struggled, where Rahane never got going, and where Kohli had to focus all his powers to score a mere 45 runs.
That is the thing about Sharma though. He makes batting look so ridiculously easy. Any width from the spinners and they were smacked to the fence. Any semblance of flight and he took the aerial route. He had so much time on hand to swivel and pull Boult for six. For once coming good under pressure, this innings was everything that is typical of a Sharma knock.
It was also the most frustrating aspect of the day; a batsman who is capable of such feats, who yet rarely realises his true potential.