As the captains of India and New Zealand walked out for the toss, the sight of the Hagley Oval pitch was enough to elicit a gasp from most Indian fans. The wicket had more than just a tinge of green and most onlookers would have thought that the match result would hinge on the toss.
Win the toss and bowl first. It was the smart thing to do and that is exactly what Kane Williamson did as Kohli lost another toss in an overseas match. Kohli revealed that perhaps he too would have done the same if he had won the toss.
But as the match began, it became quickly evident that this wicket was no green monster. It had something for the pacers but it was probably better the Wellington wicket that the first Test was played on. Part of that perception was created by the manner in which Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal started the innings. They were clearly trying to be more competitive.
The other part of the perception was created by the manner in which Shaw batted. While in Wellington, he seemed tentative, today his footwork was decisive. He was prepared to trust his instincts and put away the loose balls with authority too. His innings saw the New Zealand pacers go on the defensive for the first time in the series and when he got to his fifty with a six, there was an opportunity to get to a much bigger score.
But then the combination of a loose shot after reaching his first overseas fifty and a great catch by Tom Latham in the slips had him taking the long walk back to the dressing room pondering the imponderables. The ball from the tall Kyle Jamieson grew big on him but it was wide. He could have let it go, he could have started anew after getting to his fifty, he could have…he should have.
It is moments like these that go a long way in a match. We will all forever wonder about the possibilities that presented themselves after Shaw got to his fifty. The right-hander’s strike-rate at that point was above 84 and the New Zealand attack was on the ropes. Instead of going in for the kill, Shaw (54) gave the Kiwis a lifeline which they gladly accepted. The wicket reduced India to 80/2 but most would have given the first session to India.
Virat Kohli came in – looked good for a period. He seemed to know where his off-stump was and the New Zealanders baited him by bowling outside the off-stump for a while before Tim Southee got one to straighten and trap the Indian skipper leg-before. The ball was just too good for an out-of-form Kohli (3).
Ajinkya Rahane (7) joined Cheteshwar Pujara in the middle but his mind was in a muddle. He never quite got going and was eventually set up beautifully by Southee. The ball drew the right-hander out and he played at it with his hands well ahead of his pads even as his feet were on the move.
Now, while all this was happening at the other end, Pujara had looked like he had settled into his usual rhythm – not the one where he gets stuck but the one he usually whistles in India. He mixed adroit defence with good shot selection. The singles were being picked. The odd boundary was being reached too.
Rahane’s wicket brought Hanuma Vihari to the wicket and the right-hander was dropped on five. Wicketkeeper BJ Watling went for a catch that seemed destined to end up in the hands of Ross Taylor at first slip and spilled it. But luck is what one makes of it and Vihari made amends by playing solidly, reaching 27 off 52 balls.
Then suddenly, he started hitting a lot of fours – some streaky, others classy. Three came in one over from Boult and a few more followed as he reached his fifty off just 67 balls. In 15 balls, he had scored 23 runs. But perhaps this unprecedented momentum unsettled him.
He finally fell in what was the last over before the tea break. Neil Wagner sent down another short ball and Vihari (55) – his mind blocked with four-hitting glory – edged it through to the keeper. The 81-run stand between Vihari and Pujara had pushed New Zealand back but the wicket changed all that because this isn’t a T20 or even an ODI… this is a Test and cameos don’t mean much.
When the teams came back after lunch, Pujara should have still been relatively calm. Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja were both in the XI because of their apparently superior batting abilities.
But just a few balls after resumption, Pujara (54) was dismissed playing the hook shot. It was short and wide from Jamieson and the India No 3 got a top-edge and it looped to the keeper. He had stayed away from the shot for the first two sessions but somehow, Pujara felt this was the ball to take a punt on.
From that point on, the other batsmen panicked. Pant felt he needed to play a shot to every ball and he was gone after making 12 off 14 balls. Umesh Yadav edged one through to the keeper and Jadeja (9) smashed two fours off Boult before hooking a Jamieson bouncer to the fielder in the deep.
Shami (16) and Bumrah (10*) threw their bats around a bit but India will rue their collapse which saw them go from 194/4 to 242 all out. Given the start and the state of the pitch, they should have been looking to get at least 300-plus but a series of unfortunate shots held them back. It will hurt all the more because the batsmen did the hard work before throwing it away. Shaw, Pujara and Vihari all got past 50 but no one managed to score more than 55.
India’s bowlers could still turn this around on Day 2 but for now Kohli and Co will look at this as a lost opportunity that could cost them the series and the match.