Harbhajan stuns tenacious New Zealand
Harbhajan Singh packed in enough carnage in the last eighty minutes or so to leave a tenacious unit demoralised. For more than five hours, New Zealand had worked hard with the ball and had been spectacular in the field, but VVS Laxman's Hyderabadi stroke-play in front of his home crowd and Harbhajan's power-hitting left them stunned.
New Zealand could say they managed to control the Laxman situation, getting him out before India could get into a lead, for they took the next three wickets without much delay. Harbhajan, though, went on to score 85 out of the 110 runs that came while he was at the wicket, hitting five sixes and seven fours, and had set himself up for a second century in two innings.
If India weren't leading already when Laxman was dismissed in the first over after tea, it was thanks to the flying Kiwis, Kane Williamson, Brendon McCullum and Martin Guptill, who put in outrageous dive after outrageous dive to make sure the odd loose balls didn't get the deserved punishment. That, added to Daniel Vettori's bowling - almost like a bowling machine with a brain - and the swing from the fast bowlers with both old and new ball, had handcuffed India.
Laxman tried to break free from the shackles through cultured yet outrageous shots, and Harbhajan wasn't about raw power either. He timed the shots as well as top-order batsmen, and manoeuvred the strike too. One short of 50, he refused three singles, in order to shield Sreesanth, suggesting he had more than that landmark - his third such effort in the last three innings - on his mind. And he did have much more on his mind. Fourteen overs later, the two were still together, had added 69 runs, and had taken India to a sixth score of 400 in their last six first innings.
As the last-wicket stand went on and on, New Zealand toiled away cluelessly, their shirts out of their trousers, their tired faces telling the story of a hard-fought day, and the Indian batsmen, dressed up to take the field, waited. It's possible they would have looked back and thought how for the best part of the first two sessions, such free-flowing batting hadn't seemed possible.
New Zealand began the day with a big deficit in prospect, but managed to delay that possibility. Not through defensive fields, but through controlled aggression. Their ground fielding was backed by Ross Taylor's one-handed blinder to remove Sachin Tendulkar.
A sign of intent came through their taking the new ball the moment it became available, despite how they had rendered stroke-play difficult with the old one. The new ball worked through good swing bowling from Tim Southee, who trapped Rahul Dravid with one that shaped to swing away but went on with the angle after pitching. Thirty-nine overs until then had yielded just 81 runs.
Unlike Dravid and Tendulkar, though, Lamxan struck the ball cleanly even though he struggled for a healthy strike-rate. He wasted little time in hitting two crunchy boundaries off Martin, but a combination of smart field-sets and sharp fielding kept Laxman quiet.
With time, though, Laxman started finding the gaps, especially with the new ball. The turnaround perhaps began with the straight flick from wide outside off, off Brent Arnel, taking him to 37 off 97. Then the bat face opened precisely with cover-drives, the wrists started turning precisely to beat the field on the on side, and just to reiterate that we were in Hyderabad, that straight-flick from wide outside off was repeated. He was now 70 off 141.
New Zealand hadn't yet given up. They latched onto the opening given by Suresh Raina, who lofted Vettori into a densely populated on side, with 10 minutes to go to tea. They rediscovered the enthusiasm that Laxman had almost suppressed. In Vettori's next over, McCullum and Williamson went diving to save two boundaries. In the first over after tea, Martin removed Laxman with a ball that jagged back in from back of a length.
The next three wickets came without much fuss either side of a rain break, but by then Harbhajan smacked a couple, had an odd edge land safe, and was about to stun New Zealand. Immediately after Pragyan Ojha ran himself out, Harbhajan took the matters into his own hands. He danced down and lofted Vettori over long-on for back-to-back sixes to spread the field all over the place.
Then Harbhajan began farming strike, batting like a proper batsman. New Zealand's response was to bounce Sreesanth when Southee got a full over at him, hitting the No. 11 thrice. Still Harbhajan stayed away from reckless hitting, and decided to take the fast bowlers on himself, letting Sreesanth face spin.
And some taking on he did. He walked down to Arnel and lofted him for a dead-straight four, then pulled him for a six, and slogged him over midwicket when the field came up for the last ball. There was no pattern in there that New Zealand could plan for. A slog would be followed by a proper shot, and Vettori ran out of ideas.
Harbhajan wasn't sated, and cajoled old friend Sreesanth to stay with him till stumps. Given the tired faces, the only consolation for New Zealand perhaps was that their openers didn't have to face an awkward spell of 20 minutes.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo