Jolted India switch focus to survival
The last time India were five wickets down for so few in a Test, they were considered the minnows of the game. On that disastrous 1952 tour of England, they slumped to 0 for 4 in the second innings at Headingley. But worse was to follow in the final Test at The Oval, when Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman reduced them to 6 for 5. They escaped with a draw only because poor weather allowed less than 11 hours of play over the five days.
There are no dark clouds over Motera to provide succour after the penultimate day of this game and if India are to avoid the embarrassment of defeat against a side that currently has a similar standing to what they did in 1952, inspiration will have to come from someone who was part of a remarkable game here 14 years ago.
VVS Laxman, whose languid strokeplay and composure offer the best escape route, made his debut in that game, a bizarre affair where South Africa took a 21-run lead and then had India 91 for 5 in the second innings. Laxman made 51 of the 98 added while he was at the crease, and the visitors were left with 170 to win on the fourth day.
On a wearing pitch, Anil Kumble was expected to be India's most potent weapon, but instead it was Javagal Srinath with his inswingers and offcutters that caused havoc on a surface with widening cracks. From 96 for 4, South Africa slumped to 105 all out.
It was hard not to think of Srinath's spell as Chris Martin, with just eight previous five-fors in 56 Tests, scythed through a vaunted batting line-up either side of tea. Like Srinath, he kept it full and swung the ball. But as with the delivery that accounted for Sachin Tendulkar, there was also movement off the seam. Some of the shots the Indians played weren't especially clever, but credit has to go to Martin for creating a siege mentality in the batsmen's mind without even having pace support at the other end.
Pragyan Ojha's 4 for 107 earlier in the day had given India the sort of slender lead that South Africa had back in '96, but by close of play the first session had pretty much been forgotten. "It was a great spell from Martin," said Ojha afterwards. "But as we know, Bhajju pa [Harbhajan] can bat, and Laxman is still at the crease. Even when I, Zak pa [Zaheer] or Sree [Sreesanth] go out to bat, we'll definitely look to play as long as we can."
The irony of India scrapping for survival against a team blanked by Bangladesh in a one-day series last month wasn't lost on anyone, but Ojha preferred to focus on Martin's spell rather than any inadequacies within his own team. "There's little grass on the wicket," he said. "He bowled really good lines and he was bowling up which favoured him. It was bad luck for us that we lost so many wickets in a session."
India have collapsed before, most recently in Mohali against Australia, but few of those have been as unexpected as this, against a side reduced to three regular bowlers as a result of injuries to Hamish Bennett [groin strain] and Jesse Ryder [tightness in the calf]. A game that had meandered for three days and a session, with more than 900 runs scored for the loss of 15 wickets, came alive on the stroke of lunch when debutant Kane Williamson edged Ojha to slip.
Including that dismissal, 10 wickets fell for 59 runs. The fact that the crocked Bennett and the hapless Martin - who inflated his Test batting average to 2.35 with his unbeaten 3 - survived 51 balls between them suggested that there certainly weren't any demons in the pitch, which continued to be one that offered extremely slow turn and little else. "The couple of balls that he got to turn a lot were way outside off stump," said Ojha when asked about Daniel Vettori's bowling. "When he was bowling on the stumps, it wasn't doing much. That's what I felt."
That assessment also revealed just how hard it will be for India to conjure up a win on the final day. "We're confident that even if we get 160 or 170, we can make a match of it," said Ojha, though it was obvious from his demeanour and tone that he wasn't expecting anything like the minefield-drama that saw Australia slide to 93 all out at the Wankhede Stadium in 2004.
The slow bowlers will be expected to keep the batsmen on a leash and prey on their uncertainties on a dusty surface, but damage will need to be done first up, Srinath-style, if India are to get out of jail on the final day. "Any wicket, when the seamers do something with the new ball, it's a bit easier for the spinners," said Ojha. "If it's 40 for 2 or 3 when you come on to bowl, the batsmen are under pressure. You're one step ahead of them."
For now, India are several steps behind and faltering. As long as Laxman bats, hope floats. But the very fact that it's 'survival' and 'escape' that are the buzzwords on Sunday night are indicative of just how much New Zealand have stepped up their game since the misadventure in Bangladesh. Win or lose - a draw is unlikely - they'll have the satisfaction of leaving Motera knowing that they gave India a very bloody nose. And in the twilight of his career, it was the soon-to-be-36 Martin who landed Phantom punches that Ali would have been proud of.