India cut all escape routes as New Zealand sink under pressure
The India top order, right from KL Rahul, to Ravindra Jadeja made merry, scoring with a freedom that suggested the wicket held no terror for them.
Pressure and the lack of it can evoke different responses from cricket teams. The “nasty” track at Kanpur, that had spun, provided variable bounce and generally made life miserable for the batsmen, appeared for the duration of India’s second innings, to be at its benign best.
The India top order, right from KL Rahul, to Ravindra Jadeja made merry, scoring with a freedom that suggested the wicket held no terror for them. They produced strokes of vintage quality and raced to a lead of over 400 before the expected declaration came.
When New Zealand batted, they appeared to be battling a tornado that threatened to gobble them up even before they could make a run to save their lives. Each delivery from the two India spinners was spitting venom and judging by the rate at which wickets started to fall in the beginning, an Indian victory on Sunday would have been no surprise.
The attacking India batsmen were playing on the same track where R Ashwin and Jadeja, like in the latter half of the New Zealand first innings, caused panic and confusion post tea. Was this to do with the skilful India batsmen, poor bowling by the Kiwis or a sudden change in the nature of the track? It is here that the nasty beast called pressure comes into play.
After conceding a first innings lead of 56 runs, and the flying start India got, the New Zealand spinners were on the retreat, making more effort to save runs than take wickets.
The defensive field, sagging morale and fear of the lead mounting to insurmountable proportions, played a role in building unbearable pressure that brings one face to face with despair. The Kiwis’ only hope was for the India batsmen to crumble, or take the risk of attacking the batsmen and not worry about the runs being conceded. They chose to be ultra cautious, as most teams do in these situations.
The Indians had no such worries. Free of any pressure, the results were very fruitful for them.
Cheteshwar Pujara, for long unfairly castigated for his defensive play, unleashed strokes of pure quality. He displayed lightning footwork to negate the spinners and create lengths to strike the ball to the ropes. Murali Vijay, undeniably among the most graceful strikers of the ball in the game today, did the same and India were on the path to securing a huge lead.
Rohit Sharma, under pressure to justify the faith the team has in him, for once did not falter to deceive and with Jadeja using his wristy power and timing to hit big and long, there was no looking back for India.
The only irritant from an Indian perspective was Virat Kohli’s second failure in the match, once again indiscretion getting the better of his natural flair for aggression. Not that it mattered, as once the Kiwis came out to bat, the India spin duo was back to its bagful of magical tricks.
Ashwin, in his second over, the fourth of the innings, set the tone with the ball, that turned, stopped, jumped to an extent that must have created panic among the batsmen.
Two wickets fell in that over. More could have resulted as the judgment of the umpires came into play in deciding on leg before appeals. With the turning down of each appeal, the fielders showed their disappointment, at times the TV replays justifying their reaction.
Kane Williamson made an effort to confront Ashwin and the demons of the wicket, with some bold play. But these are conditions Ashwin is a master of, no wonder he became the fastest Indian to take 200 Test wickets. With the deliveries from Ashwin changing direction, as if they were hitting pebbles placed on the wicket, Williamson had little chance to survive for long.
This match is now as good as over. India, unless the weather interferes, will make a winning start to their 500th Test match. For the Kiwis, the important lesson from the Test is that in India matches are decided in the first innings itself. If you lose out there, the slide downhill can be swift and painful.