New Zealand restore reputation
There's a reason why series between India and New Zealand on the subcontinent have seldom set pulses racing. There was an excellent series in 1969, when only rain thwarted the tourists in their quest for victory, and the contest nearly two decades later saw results in each of the three Tests. Since then though, a combination of placid pitches and ordinary attacks has conspired to produce seven draws in the last nine Tests.
As at Mohali in 1999 [Dion Nash] and 2003 [Daryl Tuffey], a New Zealand pace bowler gave India an almighty scare but there simply wasn't enough support to complete the task. It didn't help that the pitch was another lifeless Motera special. Between them, Daniel Vettori and Jeetan Patel bowled 61 overs in the second innings, and the two wickets that they had to show for it came from two obvious umpiring mistakes.
"We want to reflect on the positives and where we've been in terms of the tour of Bangladesh," said Vettori after the game. "We're happy with that, and content, but not satisfied that we couldn't finish the job. There were a lot of factors for that - the wicket, bowlers not being able to penetrate on the last day and the fact that we had very limited resources.
Hopefully, people will take out of it the improvement that we've shown. The key for us is to now take the same performance to Hyderabad."
Chris Martin reduced India to a weak-kneed 15 for 5 on the fourth afternoon, but was a far less threatening proposition on the final day. "He said he couldn't feel his legs in the second session," said Vettori. "He was hanging in there. He still bowled pretty well. On that fifth day, you want a couple of guys to have short, sharp spells and just keep attacking. Unfortunately, the nature of that wicket and our limited resources didn't allow us to.
"I'd have loved to see us with five bowlers. Hamish Bennett in short sharp spells, and Jesse Ryder would have been a bit of a handful. It would have meant that Jeetan and I could have attacked more as opposed to just bowling and bowling. Whenever you come to India, your concern is taking 20 wickets. We've done it once and we've got to improve on that."
The biggest gains for New Zealand though were in the batting department. After being embarrassed by Bangladesh's spinners in a one-day series last month, they defied scoreboard pressure to get within a whisker of India's first-innings 487. "We knew we needed to show some improvement," said Vettori. "This wicket was a good one for us to start on. The fact that it was so slow allowed our batsmen to settle in. They got a good understanding of what they need to do to succeed over here. It is everyone's first Test in India, apart from mine, so it's a big learning curve. Hopefully, the amount of time the guys batted means they'll be better for it come Hyderabad."
Having lost two early wickets and then slipped to 137 for 4, New Zealand counter-attacked brilliantly to ensure that India couldn't just throw the bats around in search of a declaration. For Vettori, that was the most heartening aspect of the performance. "The way the guys stood up, starting with Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor's partnership," he said. "Obviously, Ryder and Kane Williamson scoring hundreds. In India, you need to score hundreds. It's the way you put teams under pressure.
"The way those two batted for such an extended period of time and understood the conditions was probably the most satisfying thing. It gave Martin a rest. We've said a few times: look what he can do when we give him some rest. He doesn't get it that often. It showed what you can do over here if you build big partnerships and big totals."
Ryder and Williamson defied India for 281 minutes on the third day and the game was taken away from New Zealand by a similar partnership between Harbhajan Singh and VVS Laxman. "I think that's where tail-end batting has got to these days," said Vettori ruefully when asked about Harbhajan's first hundred. "There's not too many easy wickets any more. He played exceptionally well. He's a good attacking batsman and he knows his areas. Some of the shots he played were outstanding and put us back under pressure.
"The key in those situations for batsmen like Harbhajan is not to become defensive. He played his natural game and that put pressure back on us. If he'd blocked it, we could have attacked more. But he played so well and so aggressive that he took the game away from us."
As for Laxman, he's been a familiar tormentor. At Mohali in 2003 and again in Napier last year, he scored hundreds with India precariously placed and though he missed out on three figures this time, Vettori's admiration was apparent. "Laxman just did what he always does," he said. "He scores runs. The good players play the same way no matter what the situation. That's half the battle when you walk out under pressure. He knows his game. He puts the bad balls away and defends good balls. Anyone with that sort of experience and talent, when they come to the middle, you know it's going to be difficult."
This may go down in the annals of New Zealand cricket as one that got away, but after coming into the series as underdogs, Vettori's team went a long way towards restoring the plucky reputation that the country's cricketers have always had. They now need to keep it going at Hyderabad, though for the sake of the game and his bowling arm, Vettori might hope to find a pitch that isn't such a cadaver.