Laxman plays a lone hand
Close India 390 for 6 (Sehwag 130, Laxman 86*) trail New Zealand 630 for 6 dec by 240 runs
VVS Laxman - known for his flair, but boy, can he be solid
Inderjit Bindra, the man with whom the buck stops at the Punjab Cricket Association, said yesterday on television that he would ensure that a pitch of this kind is never again prepared at Mohali. After an agonising fourth day, one hopes he keeps his promise. In 90 overs, India scored just 187 runs at a fraction over two runs per over. It was not fun, one can safely say, for anyone. India reached 390 for 6, and still need 41 runs to avoid the follow-on.
When the day began there was every sign that the Sunday crowd were in for a batting feast. Virender Sehwag was in sensational form and had brutally assaulted his way to 128. Rahul Dravid looked assured during his stay at the wicket late on the third day. The pitch showed no signs of breaking up. The stage was well set for a reply in kind to New Zealand's massive 630 for 6 declared.
But from Ian Butler's very first ball, Dravid (13) feathered a thin nick to Robbie Hart. Despite the loss of Dravid, India, at 208 for 2, were still in a strong position. Then Stephen Fleming remembered Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal to Scott Styris at Ahmedabad. Styris was immediately called into the attack, and it soon paid dividends - but not where they were expected. After being rattled by a good shout for lbw, which he somehow survived, Sehwag had an almighty heave at Styris's slower one. The result was an inside edge onto the stumps and Sehwag was gone (218 for 3). He had added just two runs to his overnight score of 128. The New Zealand bowlers and fielders were visibly buoyed by the fall of two wickets in the space of ten runs.
Rahul Dravid wonders what else he could have done on a pitch like this
Now VVS Laxman and Tendulkar got together. Tendulkar proceeded to play one of the most unattractive innings you will see from a front-line batsman. The feet did not move properly, the timing was off, and several attempts to cut or drive the ball resulted in mis-hits. As Tendulkar struggled and retreated into his shell, the bowlers slowly but steadily got on top.
Butler charged in, bent his back and went hard at the batsmen. Every time the ball beat the bat Butler would be at the end of his followthrough, almost by the striker's side. A glare, a raised eyebrow and the odd word let the batsman know exactly who was in control. Daryl Tuffey attempted no such histrionics, knowing full well that he did not have the pace to back it up. He simply concentrated on getting the basics right. He put the ball in the right place often enough, giving it every chance to cut or seam a bit and catch the edge. On another day, with more luck, he would have had more to show for his hard toil.
But more than the medium-pace, it was flight and spin that kept the Indians on a tight leash. Tendulkar did not come down the wicket once to the spinners, and they exploited this fact brilliantly. Vettori in particular put in a sterling effort, ending with 2 for 77 from 53 overs. He bowled long spells with good control, giving nothing away. He pegged away on a consistent line, knew where his fielders were, and made sure there was no way the batsmen could score without taking risks. And neither Tendulkar nor Laxman was prepared to make things happen.
At tea India had 330, and still needed 101 runs to avoid the follow-on. The situation was not ideal, but eminently manageable. The first ball after tea changed everything. Tendulkar attempted to work Vettori to leg, but only managed to edge the ball back onto his pad. Mark Richardson at silly mid-off snapped up the offering. Tendulkar's painful 55 came off 175 balls. He did at least go past Javed Miandad's tally of Test runs, into fifth place on the alltime list.
Yuvraj Singh (20) played one magnificent pull for six but did not show the positive intent that has brought him success at one-day level. After a point he left long-hops alone and defended overpitched balls. Such an approach was never going to work, and Tuffey exploited it. A well-directed delivery kissed the edge of the bat before landing in Hart's gloves (350 for 5).
Parthiv Patel made a confused 18 from 35 balls, never sure whether to defend or attack. When he popped a catch off Vettori to Richardson (388 for 6) Laxman could only shake his head in dismay at the other end. While Laxman continued sedately, albeit slowly, to 86 not out (226 balls, 10 fours) there was little support at the other end. India ended the day on 390 for 6, still 41 runs away from avoiding the follow-on.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.