As he walked back after making a dash to the dressing room at the drinks interval on Sunday morning, Shikhar Dhawan was working furiously on his pointed whiskers, a style statement made popular since he blazed to a Test century on debut last year.
But the fourth day of the first Test against New Zealand at Eden Park was about substance.
Intent was what was required as India chased a near impossible target. Only three teams had ever chased down a fourth innings target of 400-plus in Test history.
For a good part, the left-handed opener found the balance. Naturally aggressive, the temptation was to stand and deliver. But this was the time to be watchful, and play smart. That meant leaving as many deliveries as possible. Still, the personality can’t always be masked. The six off leg-spinner Ish Sodhi took care of that. It had hardly cleared the rope and the helmet was off in a flash.
It was not to gloat, but to pray. Not having scored even a fifty since that 187 in Mohali, across four Tests and seven innings for almost a year, a century does call for thanksgiving. But a tap on the shoulder from partner Virat Kohli informed him the prayer had to wait. He was still a run short of the mark. The routine was gone through all over again after the next ball was put away.
But Virat himself will be in a penitent mood. His knock was impeccable till a rash shot consumed him. India still fought brilliantly but that was the trigger for the momentum shift, subtle initially but it got severe as the visitors were reined in at 366.
The Kiwis, tense after deciding not to enforce the follow on with confidence ebbing away when Virat and Shikhar put together a 126-run third wicket partnership, clinched a 40-run victory, with just over a day to spare.
That was largely down to one fast bowler’s resolve. Neil Wagner anyway is not fashionable even in the New Zealand line-up. He is the workhorse to complement the strike duo of Tim Southee and Trent Boult. Not for him the bouncer targeting the helmet grille; it is the one that drives batsmen to distraction and back to the pavilion. That weapon felled Shikhar, Virat and skipper MS Dhoni, ensuring India stay winless abroad since the summer of June, 2011.
The clumsy does it for Wagner, the South African-born bowler who chipped away at India’s resolve. As he hits the delivery stride, he is invariably so wide, there is concern of no-ball. But the foot always lands an inch inside the line. He caught Virat off-guard with a bouncer that ended so wide of off-stump, the batsman pulled instead of cutting, edging to ‘keeper BJ Watling.
It was not a day when Shikhar could have been easily shaken. But another Wagner special, Shikhar’s evasive action and a feather touch to the glove before glancing off the shoulder got Watling again into the picture. Wagner’s double success in a marathon 10-over spell left the glamour pace boys ready to strike with the new ball not far away.
Boult did that first delivery with the new ball, with umpire Steve Davis ruling Ajinkya Rahane leg before despite a thick inside edge. When Rohit Sharma fell first ball after tea, the tide had truly turned. The specialist batsmen were gone with 137 still to get.
Dhoni’s ferocious counterattack with Ravindra Jadeja rattled his rival number, Brendon McCullum. It was better than going down meekly, but audacity needs luck as well. The pair rattled off 54 runs in 5.4 overs. Zaheer helped narrow the target to 58 but the host pacers were on song. Still Wagner played the final note. Another slow bouncer wide of off-stump and Dhoni’s Virat-style pull fell on the stumps. It was not a day for style to thump substance.