It looked like the kind of day many Indians have come to dread. Cold, gloomy, cloudy with a threat of rain. On so many such days, India’s batsmen have failed to exercise the right mix of caution and adventure; on so many such days they have collapsed.
So when New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson won the toss and said his team were going to bowl first, many Indian fans braced themselves for a morning filled with self-doubt and curses.
“We’re going to have a bowl first,” Williamson said at the toss. “The conditions, a bit of weather around, hopefully we can make use of the first hour, get a bit of seam movement.”
But Virat Kohli, as he so often does, looked completely nonplussed. He, too, would have liked to bowl first but there is little he fears.
“Big final, runs on the board, however many you get, it’s always a bit of an advantage,” Kohli said. “The two spinners, they can bowl in any conditions, and if there’s a bit of dampness, they’re really accurate and can make use of it as well.”
And then the game began. Tim Southee, a swing bowler with 309 Test wickets to his name, and Trent Boult, 287 Test wickets, are both masters of their craft. They have time and again skittled sides out in similar conditions. Facing them were Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill, an untested pair in these conditions. The former has been around for a long time but batting away from home has not been his strong suit. Gill, on the other hand, seemed to always hang back on his back foot and against the swinging ball that isn’t a good thing.
If you were a betting person, you wouldn’t have given the Indian openers much of a chance. But the following hour showed exactly why Test cricket is such a fascinating game.
The Indian team, in their time away from the game, have tried to work out a strategy against swing bowling. They were all standing out of the crease — trying to cut down the time the ball has to swing and they were all looking to play as late as possible. They were also trying not to push at deliveries. All simple tweaks in essence but easier said than done because it requires a fair bit of mental discipline to stick to the plan and not give in to the temptation to play a few shots.
Sharma and Gill began impressively by leaving the ball outside the off-stump well alone. They waited for the bowlers to come to them and when they did, they were taken for runs. Even though the ball was swinging around, India’s openers didn’t go into a shell and by the end of the 10th over, they had put 37 runs on the scoreboard.
Gill punished anything even remotely short while Rohit waited for the ball to to drift onto his pads before playing his shots. There were no fancy drives attempted and that perhaps was the most pleasing thing on display. The openers were out to do a job and they were doing it.
The run-rate forced Williamson to look elsewhere for a breakthrough and that is when Kyle Jamieson came into the attack. The tall New Zealander, who finished the day with figures of 14-9-14-1, was very accurate on the day and the run-rate was immediately brought down.
Colin de Grandhomme, who is one of the most economical bowlers in Test cricket, was brought on from the other end and he too gamely struck to his task. So while the runs had been coming fairly easily in the first hour, they now almost slowed down to a trickle.
Still, the Indian openers carried on to notch up a fifty-run partnership that will inspire confidence for not just this match but for the rest of the England tour as well. The conditions were as difficult as they could possibly get and if they could stand their ground here, they will believe that they can do it anywhere else too
The openers’ form was all the more impressive given this was India’s first Test since March whereas New Zealand had recently completed a 1-0 series win over England with an eight-wicket victory at Edgbaston.
Sharma’s 68-ball innings, featuring six fours, ended when he edged a late-swinging delivery from Jamieson to third slip where Southee held an excellent low catch, diving to his right. But his 34, if one factors in the confidence he would have gained from the knock, should be worth a lot more than the number we see.
Gill followed soon after for 28, edging aggressive left-armer Neil Wagner to BJ Watling. For the youngster too, the innings was something that he can to look to build on.
The rest of the Indian batting line-up did their part too. No one was in a mood for adventure. Rather, their pragmatic approach to the batting effort stood out. They didn’t feel the need to attack because they knew there was a lot of time left in the match. The reading of the situation showed how far they’ve come.
Kohli, 44 not out off 124 balls including just one boundary, was just as patient as the openers. De Grandhomme doesn’t bowl at a great pace but he was accurate while bowling to the Indian skipper, who in his own patient way showed the intent that was needed to survive.
He found an able partner in Ajinkya Rahane (29 not out) and the two shared an unbroken partnership of 58 before bad light forced an early end to the day’s play with India on 146/3.
It is too early to pass any judgment on the Indian batting effort but it suffices to say that on a tough day for batting, India’s batsmen did indeed put their best foot forward.
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