The value of a performance and the quality of play is inextricably linked with the nature of the wicket in cricket. There is no other sport where the result it provides is so dependent on the surface that the curator of a stadium prepares for a match.
At Eden, the Kiwis suffered the first blow even before the track could be tested. Their skipper Kane Williamson had to opt out of the Test as he was unwell. The second blow, they might have thought, came with the loss of the toss. Conversely, these were happy tidings for India but all of a sudden, much to their discomfort, they were to discover that the wicket had something extra for the pacers.
The outcome was the loss of three quick wickets and a situation that appeared to be fast going against them. Shikhar Dhawan was to waste his return with a loose shot, Murali Vijay’s defenses were breached by a superb delivery and skipper Virat Kohli dug his own grave. Three Test innings and three aggressive shots that lacked proper planning and execution in this series and all of a sudden, Kohli is beginning to appear vulnerable and human.
The Indians have in the past been critical of Cheteshwar Pujara and his “ultra” defensive mindset. This whole talk of his run-rate and getting bogged down has cost him his place in the side, though why has India’s most complete Test batsman been put on the dissecting table and scanned so minutely remains a mystery.
Once again in the series, he was to display his ice-cool temperament that helps him adjust to conditions better than most others. His understanding of his own strengths and limitations, as well as lightning footwork, helps him get into the groove with the surety of a man who knows what he is doing. Once again, a three figure score eluded him but by then he had done enough for his critics to now stop exaggerating his deficiencies.
His partner in India’s temporary recovery, Ajinkya Rahane, is an equally accomplished batsman, and again not as extolled and praised as his more flamboyant teammates who precede or follow him.
Rahane wears an expression of calmness and moves around with a relaxed gait that can often be mistaken for indifference. He does not let the conditions or tense passages of a match ruffle him. He reacts to situations without letting pressure decide his responses. In that he is more like Pujara and is as correct as a batsman can be. And when need be, he can break the shackles with reassuring fluency to rattle the bowlers.
These two rebuilt the Indian innings as the wicket appeared losing its moisture and extra bounce, perhaps due to soaking all the sunshine that drenched the ground throughout the day.
If India were being led to believe they had overcome the disaster of the morning, the last session once again turned things around. Rohit Sharma, the man who has triggered the Pujara debate, did not last long enough and when Rahane became off-spinner Jeetan Patel’s second victim, India were once again in disarray.
The second new ball cut short Ashwin’s another promising innings from flourishing and the balance of the first day had swung the New Zealand way.
There was a second element of surprise on the opening day and that was the absence of the ball spinning much. A newly laid track with a bit of a green look had the New Zealanders include an extra pacer, the successful Matt Henry in place of leggie Ish Sodhi. One does not remember when India last prepared a track where the ball did not turn right from the first day itself.
Whether it has to do with the quality of spinners New Zealanders have or the nature of the surface, will be known once Indians get to bowl on it. If it does not till the third or fourth day, then the Test as of now is for the New Zealanders to lose.