India's depleted attack steps up
Saturday was a grey day in the New Zealand dressing room with news filtering through of the mishap at the Pike River coal mine on the South Island, and some decidedly average batting on a none-too-spiteful pitch only worsened the mood by the close of play. Until Jesse Ryder and Brendon McCullum, battling physical limitations as much as the bowling or the conditions, stitched together a 42-run stand, it was all India, cutting a swathe through the line-up as they had been expected to before the series started.
It was ironic that this capitulation came in circumstances where New Zealand should have most fancied their chances. They had won the toss, at a venue where the team batting first has won both previous matches emphatically, and had to contend with an attack deprived of Zaheer Khan, India's best bowler by a street and then some.
In the talisman's absence though, Sreesanth stepped up to show glimpses of the potential that was on view at the Wanderers four years ago when he sent South Africa tumbling to 84 all out. One of his better spells in recent times was at Kanpur a year ago, when he wrecked Sri Lanka with the old ball and reverse swing. Here, he was back to doing what he had done so well for two Tests in South Africa, landing the new ball on a good length while getting beautiful shape through the air.
The seam was bolt upright and Martin Guptill had little chance with one that squared him up completely, while Tim McIntosh was horribly late in bringing the bat down after Sreesanth got one to deviate a smidgen off the straight. At the other end, Ishant Sharma was erratic, but his height and extra pace hurried the batsmen in a way they hadn't been in the previous two Tests.
There was opening-day joy for the spinners too, even though the surface was no 1990s-style dustbowl. "It was a bit slow, but doing something for the spinners," said Pragyan Ojha after the day's play. Kane Williamson went to a half-hearted bunt, but the ball that got Gareth Hopkins was a beauty, turning across him to take the edge.
With Harbhajan Singh piling on the runs in the absence of wickets, much of the focus after India's failure to win the first two Tests has been on Ojha's role as the auxiliary spinner. MS Dhoni keeps stressing how he's the one to keep things quiet and Ojha, a strike bowler when with Hyderabad, insisted that he has no qualms about the role that he has to play.
"When you're playing for the country and the team needs you to do something, that's what you should do," he said. "When the wicket's turning, you have to attack. When it's in the batsmen's favour, I feel that if we give loose runs, it's us that have to make them later.
"I know I have to bowl very straight, but I don't bowl negatively. Yes, I'm trying to contain the runs but I'm still attacking the stumps."
If India missed a trick, it was when Ryder and McCullum were batting together. There weren't enough well-directed bouncers to force McCullum into urgent evasive action and the spinners, too, didn't often draw either man out of the crease to stretch already aching muscles. It took a wonderful catch from Suresh Raina to end the impasse, and with rain in the air, that could be a priceless breakthrough in the context of the game. Even on one leg, Ryder looked a class apart.