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November 20, 2010
It was a strange day. Over two hours of play were lost, but it had rained for just 40 minutes yesterday afternoon. Just before the toss, Brendon McCullum collapsed during a gentle warm-up session, and couldn't open the batting. Then the team that batted so well in the last two Tests went down as if they were shot. The bowling was fine, but it wasn't of such high quality to warrant such a collapse. And just as you thought New Zealand had raised the white flag, two limping men put up a stiff fight.
Watching New Zealand surrender meekly this afternoon, after they had matched India over the first two Tests, it's tempting to reach for an easy answer: was it because they do well as underdogs but the moment they are on even keel with their opponents, they freeze up? They considered themselves favourites in Bangladesh, but were crushed. They were expected to go down tamely to India, but they reached Nagpur with their reputations enhanced. And then they froze today.
Daniel Vettori, of course, didn't see it that way. "I don't think so. You have to give credit to India; they bowled well and hit the right areas. The feedback is that it's not a 400-500 run wicket." It may not be a 400-run pitch, but it wasn't bad for batting either. "They bowled well, the spin was slow, but it's not a 147 for 7-wicket," he conceded.
Another possible answer to the conundrum lies in McCullum's injury. It is a big blow to lose an in-form opener - especially someone like McCullum, whose aggressive batting puts pressure on the opposition attack - but it can't be an excuse for such a poor show by the rest of the batsmen. After all, this is McCullum's first series as an opener and New Zealand can't already be so dependent on him. And openers, especially the attacking kind, do get out early on many occasions.
Perhaps the timing of the injury and the resultant confusion triggered a chaotic state of mind in the camp? Vettori didn't agree with that one either. "No, I don't think so. Apart from myself, it was not like the guys got themselves out. It wasn't a hard decision at the toss [to bat first]. The nature of the wicket was to bat first. We were pretty confident Brendon would come out to bat tomorrow and bat and run normally. Unfortunately it didn't happen. He still showed his quality to come out to play and play so well. Brendon has a history of back spasms; they normally take a day to heal. We wanted to bat out the day and have him come out in the middle-order, but unfortunately that didn't happen."
There is one other simple conclusion lurking in the background. It would be easy to say that India will go on to take a big lead, have enough time to bowl out New Zealand in the second, and seal a series win. But it's too simplistic a thought, and Vettori left with a note of defiance: "If we can scrap hard tomorrow and get some runs and then take early wickets we can put the pressure back on India. There's still lots of cricket left in the game."
He has a point. By tomorrow, New Zealand will return to being the underdogs and will have their backs to the wall. It's where they like to be and when they play their best cricket.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge
Plays of the day from the tri-series match between Zimbabwe and South Africa
Would he have fared better than the incumbent middle-order batsmen, Root and Ballance?