Unlike India’s last home series against South Africa last year, New Zealand forced the hosts to think out of the box. Though India won at Kolkata to beat the Kiwis in the three-match Test series on Monday, the visitors showed they could challenge before the Indians devised a plan to tackle them.
The Kiwis learnt the art of tackling spin --- a short front-foot stride and making their bats the first line of defence. On the other hand, it was a test for the India spinners, who were expected to up their game and bowl differently to break the Kiwis’ defence.
The current squad has learnt quickly. Since the warm-up game at Feroz Shah Kotla, the Kiwis have raised the bar in batting and bowling. Landing in Delhi after a busy home season, they faced hot conditions and, more importantly, spin.
But Kane Williamson and Luke Ronchi set an example, coming up with an aggressive approach to tackle the India spinners. Mitchell Santner and Co adjusted well to bowl quicker through the air and varied their speed to emulate the Indians.
In Kolkata on Monday, the fourth day of the second Test, opener Tom Latham scored 74, and was the only batsman to apply himself on an unpredictable track and offered the bat as the first line of defence. He reduced his front-foot stride to avoid getting committed and planted his foot across. Soon, skipper Ross Taylor was seen employing the same tactic and was comfortable against Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.
Unlike Kanpur, the Eden Gardens pitch wasn’t a slow turner. The ball skidded off the turf and the Kiwis had to unlearn a lot of what they learned in Kanpur. Going on the back-foot was one of the tactics but the Kiwis knew they would have to be careful going back. The effect was that Ashwin and Jadeja had to come up with a plan to derail the Kiwis.
While the offspinner varied speed and flight, the variation which stung the Kiwis was the way he used the shine of the ball. Secondly, he realised that undercutting the release of the delivery could deceive the batsmen.
A delivery before trapping opener Martin Guptill, Ashwin kept the shine inside and flighted the ball. It turned a lot and beat Guptill. Then came the sucker ball. Everything was similar just that he undercut the release, which made it travel a little quicker through the air.
When Ashwin bowls a traditional offspinner, the ball revolves on the seam facing fine-leg, but when he undercuts the release, the ball travels as a flat disc with the seam revolving flatter. Guptill thought it to be a straighter one and committed his front foot in the line of the ball. The ball landed on the rough and hit the pad.
Even former New Zealand skipper Stephen Fleming said the way Ashwin released the delivery was difficult to understand. Taylor was the second victim as he also failed to decipher the undercutting on the ball. Though he saw the shine and went for the usual offspin, but the way Ashwin released it, it was meant to go the other way. Having defended confidently till then, Taylor was duped.
Jadeja followed in Ashwin’s footsteps. Latham attempted to sweep and put his bat ahead of the pad every time he faced Jadeja. But when Henry Nicholls walked in, Jadeja bowled quicker through the air. The batsmen went for the turn but it skidded and took the edge. Luke Ronchi was next. He had been exerting pressure by moving his feet up and down. So Jadeja kept the shine outside and undercut the release. The ball pitched and skidded to surprise Ronchi, and the ball crashed into the stumps.
Undercutting the release was a decisive variation as it put the Kiwis in trouble. Though such a release is an addition to Ashwin’s armoury, against South Africa last year, he used it occasionally but never thought of using it as his main delivery.
Last year against the Proteas, the pitches in most of the venues during the Test series were turners. Hence, the standard of bowling and batting remained ordinary as batsmen from both sides failed to innovate as they feared reaching the pitch of the ball.
Ashwin and Jadeja, the top wicket-takers in the series, bowled quicker through the air and waited for the pitch to do the rest.