The cricketing gods saved the best for last. On the first day of the final Test they favoured neither team excessively, instead choosing to lay out a day’s play that was as sumptuous as it was action packed. After being put in to bat India began well, then slumped, only to be revived by the tail to end on an acceptable 375 for 9.
India’s openers put on 73 in quick time, but both Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir fell in quick succession with the new ball still doing a bit.
Rahul Dravid was caught behind off a no-ball for the second time in the series and bedded down nicely, looking to make the most of the chance.
Sachin Tendulkar batted with confidence and authority, attacking the bowling rather than being dictated to. He was game to play his shots and even deployed the cheeky uppercut when the field permitted it. Even as he looked good for a hundred, Tendulkar (62) edged to the keeper, playing a touch away from his body in an attempt to punch Chris Martin through cover.
The passage of play that followed brought New Zealand back into the game. VVS Laxman was suckered into driving at a full, widish delivery and Tim McIntosh completed a smart catch in the slips cordon. Yuvraj Singh played one delectable punch back down the ground but could not get his bat around front pad to a full, straight delivery from Jesse Ryder and Daryl Harper had no difficulty in giving the lbw. From 73 for 0 India had slumped to 182 for 5 even as worse was to follow.
Dravid, who had obdurately hung around for 35 from more than three hours attempted to pull Martin but only managed to pop a simple catch to the man in front of square on the leg side. At 204 for 6, with MS Dhoni still feeling for deliveries outside the off, India were one quick wicket away from being rolled over.
Harbhajan Singh, however had other plans. He attacked the ball in idiosyncratic fashion, hitting in unorthodox areas and picking gaps that Daniel Vettori struggled to plug. New Zealand’s bowlers grew steadily frustrated but there was nothing they could do.
Dhoni, who had worked out a method to preserve his wicket yet get some invaluable runs on the board, racked up a half-century in good time. A top-edged pull ended the captain’s innings on 42 but then the fun began. Harbhajan grew more and more adventurous, playing audacious shots over and through the field. When he was dismissed, trying to clear mid-off, Harbhajan had struck seven fours and a six in a thoroughly entertaining 60. Ishant Sharma and Munaf Patel kept up the good work and India ended having scored at 4.16 an over. It’s not often that Harbhajan ends up missing out on being the top-scorer by just 2 runs but when those days come, the spirits of the team are lifted. India have the runs on the board, now it’s over to the bowlers.