Dhoni happy with four-pronged attack
Despite the loss of Zaheer Khan to injury and another fruitless outing for the bowling, MS Dhoni appeared reluctant to meddle with the four-bowler strategy that has worked for the team in recent times. Harbhajan Singh's recent heroics with the bat do give Dhoni the luxury of dropping a specialist batsman, but India are unlikely to go down that route in Nagpur.
"It's a tough call to make," said Dhoni. "We're happy to play with four bowlers. That's what we've done more often than not. To put pressure on Bhajji by saying he's an allrounder might be harsh on him. But it is an option."
When the day began with New Zealand just 115 ahead, an Indian win was still very much a possibility. But once Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson started with wonderfully positive intent and saw off the new ball, there was only going to be one result. "We thought the first one or one-and-a-half hours would be crucial," said Dhoni. "At the time, Zaheer was also fit to bowl, in the sense that he felt he could give it a go.
"But after a couple of overs with the new ball, he decided he's not really fit enough to continue. So we just had Sreesanth left as a medium-pacer. And we had two spinners who had already bowled a good number of overs."
Though Harbhajan's strike-rate with the ball this year is an unflattering 97.4, his batting form has meant that it's Pragyan Ojha who's under scrutiny after two draws against a side ranked No. 8 in the world. "I think Ojha's done a really good job in the games he's played," said Dhoni when it was suggested that Ishant Sharma or Amit Mishra might have been a better choice. "He's taken wickets and is one bowler who can contain and bowl long spells. Even on the flattest of tracks on the first day, he has managed to keep the opposition quiet."
Most of Dhoni's comments dealt with the pitch, which he reckoned wasn't conducive to a result. "I think both teams did well," he said. "I think the wicket supported the batsmen throughout. We've seen less grass on the wicket on the first day of both Test matches. But on the fifth day, you've seen a track with much more grass. It looked much greener compared to the first day. There wasn't much for the bowlers.
"Before the start of the Test, we all knew that Hyderabad was known for being batsmen-friendly. To change the nature of the wicket in a short period of time is difficult."
While frustrated at another stalemate, Dhoni also gave credit to New Zealand, whose top-order batsmen have played with a composure and skill that eluded most of Australia's batsmen on their recent tour of India. "They batted really well," he said. "They waited for the loose deliveries.
"When you're not getting assistance from the pitch, you sometimes try too much to get wickets. And if you look at the last 20-22 games we've played, the bowlers have bowled more than 4000 overs. That's a concern because it's mostly the same bowlers who have featured in those games."
That fatigue will definitely be a factor in Nagpur, and all eyes will once again be on the curator with the series up for grabs. There are anecdotes, true or not, from the old days of Indian captains slipping the groundsman a symbolic razor to suggest that not a blade of grass should remain come the first morning. But times have changed and Dhoni admitted that his job is tougher as a result.
"As a foreign team coming to India, you think of how you're going to play the fourth and fifth days," he said. "But when there's no assistance for the bowlers, things change. I don't think they're under the same pressure when handling spinners that they were in the past. You used to see them practise throw-downs on scuffed surfaces with rough areas. I don't think it's like that any more.
"Of the Test matches we've played lately, very few have been on turners. I can remember Ahmedabad against Sri Lanka (2005). After that, Kanpur (2008, against South Africa) to some extent. The CCI wicket in Mumbai (Sri Lanka, 2009) also gave a bit of assistance in the morning."
With his best bowler out of the series and the spinners outbowled by Daniel Vettori, a lot of things will need to fall into place for Dhoni and India to avoid embarrassment in a series that they were expected to win comfortably. A livelier pitch aside, it's time for the other bowlers to prove that this isn't a one-Zaheer team.