Agarwal makes it count with unbeaten century, Patel bowls a sensational spell
- The opener's place in the team was in doubt coming into the second Test against New Zealand, but it was all Agarwal for India on Day 1 as he mounted a rescue and dominated the bowling.
At the end of the first Test in Kanpur, the main debate centred around who should be asked to sit out to make way for Virat Kohli, who was returning after a short break. A middle-order batter for a middle-order player would be a regular swap. For many experts, however, opener Mayank Agarwal was dispensable. In Agarwal's place, wicket-keeper-batsmen Wriddhiman Saha or even rising keeper Srikar Bharat could open with Subhman Gill so that all of Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and debut Test centurion Shreyas Iyer could be fitted.
Already down the pecking order for the opening position following the success of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Gill, it would have surely meant the end of Agarwal’s Test career, at least for the short term.
As luck would have it, Rahane failed to recover from a hamstring injury he picked up on the final day at Kanpur, making for Kohli.
It was against this backdrop, with the sword hanging over his head, that Agarwal came out to open with Gill. He ended the day with a dominating, unbeaten 120 (14 fours, 4 sixes) on a lively Wankhede pitch, scoring more than half the runs in the Indian innings, which closed on 221 for four on Day 1 of the second Test.
New Zealand wouldn't be unhappy with the scorecard too. After being asked to bowl, they kept the batters under pressure throughout the two sessions of play that was possible because the ground was wet after a few days of rain in Mumbai.
Left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel was easily the pick of the bowlers, claiming all four wickets including the wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli in a single, sensational over.
On the eve of the game, the spinner had mentioned how special this game was for him as he was coming back to the city of his birth as a New Zealand cricketer. He surely was in inspired form. He settled into a nice rhythm and bowled with guile and heart to put the famed Indian batting line-up under pressure. His value to the NZ attack could be understood in the fact that stand-in captain Tom Latham got him to bowl unchanged for 24 overs. He finished with figures of 29-10-73-4.
After providing NZ the breakthrough by getting the wicket of opener Shubman Gill in the 28th over, the NZ spinner struck the Pujara-Kohli double-blow in his next. Pujara stepped out to just the second ball of the over and was beaten handily by the drift, before the ball spun viciously to take his off stump. He looked back in disbelief. Kohli's dismissal was less definitive and the Indian skipper will probably have plenty to say about the umpiring later.
Patel provided the final breakthrough of the day for New Zealand just as a partnership was building between Agarwal and the in-form Iyer. The Mumbai batsman couldn’t get on top of the bounce and was caught off bat and thigh pad by the keeper.
Agarwal’s battle with Patel was rivetting. Till Wriddhiman Saha hit Patel for a six in his 24th over, Agarwal had scored 38 off the 50 runs that the spinner had conceded. They had dueled for 86 balls till that point.
To finish the day in style, Agarwal danced down the track and lofted Patel cleanly over the boundary for his fourth six. It was 49 off the 73 runs that Patel had conceded.
The Karnataka player's career had nosedived after failing in the first two Tests on the last tour of Australia. Ever since, he has been trying to reclaim the opening slot. When he completed his hundred on Friday evening with a stylish off-drive off all-rounder Daryl Mitchell, the celebratory cry was an outpouring of pent-up frustrations. "It’s an amazing feeling to get a century in Test cricket and to get it in Wankhede is extra special," said Agarwal about his fourth Test century.
Speaking about how he changed things around, Agarwal said he kept in mind the tips he got from batting legend Sunil Gavaskar. "He told me that I should consider keeping the bat a bit low initially in my innings. I have a tendency to hold it high. I couldn’t make that adjustment in this short period of time. When he was saying, I noticed his shoulder position and basically picked up that I need to be more side on."
Riding through a period of tremendous pressure when India lost three quick wickets with just 80 runs on the board, Agarwal took 196 balls to reach the three-figure mark. He looked confident and at ease after he got his century too and continued to build his innings.
"When I was picked, Rahul bhai spoke to me. He asked me to control what is in my hands, ‘go out there and give it your best, when you get set make it big’," Agarwal said. "I’m happy to have capitalised on the start that I had. That message was very clear from Rahul bhai, that I should make it count."
PATEL TAKES FLIGHT
The quality of Patel's bowling on the day could be judged in how he made an experienced pro like Cheteshwar Pujara look like a novice. The India No 3 was bowled playing over the ball in an attempt to step out and drive. On the previous ball, he had survived a missed stumping.
Patel’s contest with Agarwal was in no way a one-sided one. The spinner did have his moments. Agarwal was seeing the ball like a football when Latham returned for his second spell after a three-over break, but he continued to beat the bat of the centurion with beautifully flighted balls, like the one on the third delivery of his 28th over, which spun across of the batsman’s forward defensive pose, millimetres away from the edge.
Agarwal said it was a conscious decision to take Patel on when the opportunity arose. "He was bowling exceedingly well. But each time anything was in our half (our arc), the plan was to be a bit more attacking. Anything that came a little towards us in length, we were going to go for it. He had that phase when he tied us down, so it was a conscious decision to make it count when we could or each time he bowled it in our spot."
At Kanpur, Patel didn’t have the kind of impact expected of him by his team, finishing with just three wickets. But he read the Wankhede wicket perfectly. He tossed the ball above the eye line, which allowed him to extract the bounce that the surface here is famous for. It was an ideal Wankhede track, offering quick turn which didn’t allow the batsman time to adjust if he was not sure in his shot.
A SOLID START
Shubman Gill started with typical flourish and Agarwal was content to play second fiddle during their opening partnership, taking responsibility at the critical juncture when India were three down. In the 80-run partnership Agarwal built with Iyer, the Mumbai batter's contribution was just 18 runs.
If Patel showed how best to bowl on the wicket, Agarwal provided an exhibition of the value for shots on offer.
After the fall of Iyer’s wicket, he found an able ally in the experienced Saha, another player whose position was under threat to accommodate all the middle-order batters. The diminutive keeper-batter again provided proof of his utility with an unbeaten 25 (53 balls, three fours and a six). He played out the threat of Patel while helping add an unfinished 61-run partnership with Agarwal.
Earlier as feared, the rains that lashed the city in the last couple of days delayed the start of the game to noon. New Zealand received a huge setback when their talismanic captain Kane Williamson was ruled out of the game due to an old elbow injury which flared up. Apart from Kohli, India made two changes, replacing the injured Ishant Sharma with Mohammed Siraj and getting in Jayant Yadav in place of Ravindra Jadeja.