Ryder finds redemption
Jesse Ryder is easy to like. Sportsmen with human traits - Ryder had weight and alcohol issues - generally are. His fans and managers in New Zealand cricket might have lost their patience with his frequent indiscretions but the neutrals didn't have to worry about the effect those flaws might have on the team. He clearly isn't an obnoxious character; he doesn't snarl and bite on the field, nor off it for that matter. Shorn of that "attitude", he seems docile, often spaced out in the middle with a gentle smile across his visage. Even his walk - a shuffling gait - is endearing.
Watching Ryder bat is a serene activity more in keeping with those traits than with the nature of his indiscretions. One would expect him to be a violent batsman, but while he can hit hard, he is usually soft, almost unobtrusive. He doesn't attack your senses; he flows by like a gentle river. The back-lift is minimal, the foot movement is limited but very precise, and you can sense that he is extremely aware of his game.
He started very scratchily on Saturday. It wasn't the attack, it wasn't the pitch; it felt more like an inner battle. He hadn't played much competitive cricket for a while - his last Test was in August 2009. In August 2010, he feared for his career after yet another indiscretion. He knew this was his last chance; the administration might loosen their grip on the rope, he might fall back into the whirlpool. It has happened before to other sportsmen .
And so the pressure must have been intense. India can be a difficult place for such men to save their careers. Indian pitches require patience. There was a fear that Ryder might try to force the pace and push hard at deliveries early on. Luckily for him, this pitch wasn't a spinning track. The balls weren't turning and leaping. Still, during the initial nervy moments Ryder pushed and stabbed at deliveries. A couple of times he edged his defensive pokes to untenanted areas. One bounded off his pad wide of short-leg and another went dangerously close past the same fielder. Ryder walked towards square-leg with his head bowed. At other times, when he top-edged his sweeps, he kicked his bat or stamped the ground.
It was Ryder v Ryder, a riveting battle. There was more nervy action: when he was on 11, Sreesanth hurled a full-length delivery slightly outside the off stump. It seemed like a trap. Ryder saw width and freed his arms. The ball flew off the edge to right of Rahul Dravid, statistically the safest pair of hands in Test cricket. The ball went into the palms and spilled out. That was the moment that turned things around. India further helped his cause by introducing part-time bowlers at this stage. Virender Sehwag and Suresh Raina helped Ryder to find his rhythm and start moving his feet. His game changed. The worst was over.
Fast forward now to the moment when he was one short of a hundred. The same bait was laid: it was another full-length delivery outside the off stump from Sreesanth. Blink. The ball was thrown back from the cover boundary. Ryder pumped his fist and turned towards the dressing room. The plump face tightened, the right hand tapped his chest. It could be his defining image of this series. The camera swung to catch his happy team-mates.
"We saw the passion when he scored his hundred and when he got out as well," Brendon McCullum later said. "He knows he has made some mistakes in the past that he is not proud of. He is not happy that he let down his team-mates in the past. But all that is in the past. We have tried to move on. Every member in the dressing room is confident and backing him up when he walks out to bat. As you saw today, he is an incredible talent."
It's difficult to isolate and focus only on Jesse Ryder the batsman. Often he has been the cause of his problems, as he himself has admitted. "I have brought it upon myself by the way I have behaved," he said before this Test. Hopefully, now, that's all in the past and the time for Ryder the batsman has truly come. It's up to Ryder. As he said the other day, it was always up to him.