Harbhajan ruins New Zealand's best-laid plans
The New Zealand outfit that trudged off the field was unrecognisable from the one that had competed fiercely for the majority of the third day.
One moment captured the spirit that had kept them on par with India for two-and-a-half sessions. In the 71st over Kane Williamson, the weakest link in New Zealand's attack, had delivered a full toss on middle and leg stump. VVS Laxman leaned forward, and with a snap of his gifted wrists, whipped the ball with precision towards the midwicket boundary. Brendon McCullum, who moves on a cricket ground like Carlos Tevez does on a football field, sprinted to his right in the in-field and dived full stretch to intercept the speeding ball with one hand. The seven other New Zealanders in the inner ring cheered.
As Brent Arnel ran in to deliver the first ball of the 125th over, however, the cries of encouragement from his team-mates were faint. Apart from the wicketkeeper Gareth Hopkins, the rest of New Zealand's fielders were weary on the edge of the boundary, bracing for another free-spirited swing from Harbhajan Singh. As Arnel approached his delivery stride, Harbhajan prepared to punch New Zealand in the gut. Despite the challenge of nine boundary riders, he stepped out of his crease, cleared his front foot and smashed the ball where Daniel Vettori couldn't place any of his men - straight over the bowler's head. The visitors were at their lowest ebb and had been turned inside out during the last hour of play.
Had Vettori aborted the strategies that brought New Zealand success against India's top-order too soon when Harbhajan began his momentum-wresting innings? For much of the morning session, Vettori had only one slip, a gully and a short leg catching for the fast bowlers but he had five other fielders saving singles at point, cover, mid-off, mid-on, and midwicket. The man at long leg was the solitary boundary rider. The Indian batsmen had to pierce small gaps, or hit over the top for their runs. The tactics were in contrast to India's: Dhoni had several catchers but sprinkled most of the others around the boundary.
Unlike the Indian spinners, Vettori kept mid-off and mid-on up when he bowled and denied Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid the singles batsmen crave to get settled on a new day. Tendulkar perished while trying to break free by clearing the in-field. Dravid and Laxman were more patient but had to contend with rigorously disciplined lines and lengths backed up by tenacious fielding.
Chris Martin and Tim Southee bowled dead straight with the old ball, aiming to swing it into the batsman's pads. Three men - a short leg, a short midwicket, and a short square leg stationed deeper and in-between the other two - waited for the uppish flick from Dravid. For Laxman the short square leg dropped to a more conventional position. While they were given no catches, the fielders flung themselves to cut off well-timed flicks and drives.
Leading the effort, at cover, was McCullum. The ball had to be hit over or extremely wide of him to get past. India managed more than two runs in only three of the first 20 overs. They scored 59 in 30 overs during the first session. Dravid, who watched many a drive, flick or cut stopped by a diving New Zealander, spoke of the effect it had on the innings.
"What stood out today was their fielding," Dravid said. "Their ground fielding was exceptional, they stopped so many runs. When Laxman and I were batting, we were trying to pierce the gap. Their fielding really helped create a lot of pressure."
Vettori opted for more conventional fields - two slips and a gully - when he gave the second new ball to his fast bowlers immediately after lunch but persisted with men saving singles. The field spread slightly when Laxman began to threaten along with Raina, but never did New Zealand fall into defensive mode. Their approach paid off and India began to lose wickets steadily as they approached New Zealand's first-innings score of 350.
The match began to turn shortly after Harbhjan walked in following Laxman's dismissal, with the score on 326 for 6. He took on Vettori, who had operated with McGrath-like accuracy until then, and clouted him over mid-on before sweeping to the fine-leg boundary. For the first time in the day, perhaps prompted by the fact that India were drawing level, Vettori pushed his mid-on deep. Harbhajan attacked Martin as well and collected his first two boundaries off the fast bowler with an edge over the keeper and an unorthodox, awkward shot straight down the ground. Soon the in-field that had kept India's top-order in check was sparsely populated.
"It [the spread fields] happened pretty early, I think," Ross Taylor said after play. "He [Harbhjan] hit Dan Vettori for a couple of fours early on and showed his intentions. The momentum shift with him coming in happened fairly quickly."
New Zealand had given up actively trying to get him out, and Harbhjan hurt them by choosing his moments and clearing the boundary riders several times. "It's a tricky one, and I've been in that position myself," Dravid said. "I think they [New Zealand] were trying to get him out initially but he started hitting a lot of shots. Even with men on the boundary line, Harbhajan was still taking them on and he was clearing the ropes. There's not much you can do. So the tendency is to push people back and try and get the No. 11 out."
That No. 11 was Sreesanth, who survived 47 balls and watched as Harbhajan manipulated strike and ruined in one hour the advantage New Zealand had created over five.