New Zealand grit goes missing
A young girl, sitting in the lower level of the pavilion stand at the Uppal stadium, barely a few rows behind the long-on boundary, was worried about the possibility of the ball hitting her courtesy a big stroke. "Don't worry," someone said. "It's New Zealand batting. Nothing's coming this way." The remark, only half in jest, sums up the kind of image the visitors have brought with them.
New Zealand have had a terrible start to the season after a long break, losing all but one of two Tests, five ODIs and two T20Is on their recent tour of the West Indies. The perception of their being pushovers actually does them a disservice, though, especially given their record in India. On their previous four visits here, New Zealand have drawn two Tests each time, and have lost three series by just one Test. They don't have superstar players as India do, playing spin does not come naturally to them, these conditions are quite alien to them yet somehow they have proved to be difficult to beat in India over the years.
In the first Test on their previous trip in 2010, they gave India a massive scare in Ahmedabad, replying with 459 - Kane Williamson made 131 on debut - to the hosts' 487 and then reducing them to 65 for 6 in the second innings. India had to rely on Harbhajan Singh's maiden Test hundred and VVS Laxman's 91 to avoid defeat. In the second Test in Hyderabad, India had hopes of capitalising on a 122-run lead but ran into Brendon McCullum, who cracked an astonishing second-innings double hundred, making 225 off 308, to draw the game.
Laxman had,at the time, praised New Zealand's showing in those two Tests. "They've always been [a tough bunch]," Laxman had said. "They are good players of spin bowling. The most important thing is that they are playing with a lot of patience and not throwing away their wickets."
Good players of spin, patience, not throwing it away. You would struggle to believe all of that after New Zealand's capitulation against R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha in the first innings of the ongoing Test. McCullum threw it away off the third ball of spin, holing out to cover. Williamson tried to cut a bouncing delivery and edged to slip, Daniel Flynn tried too many sweeps and was trapped lbw when he missed one.
Their lower order lasted less than 90 minutes this morning, and some had already started talking of a three-day finish when India, with an eye on the cloudy weather, refreshingly enforced the follow-on.
But New Zealand began even more refreshingly in their second innings, with McCullum and Martin Guptill showing the very patience Laxman had praised. McCullum's game is based on instinctive, often indiscreet, hitting, and you could see he was making an exaggerated effort to defend. He lunged forward to block Zaheer Khan's length deliveries from round the stumps; normally he would have tried to smash them. He took it to the extreme against Ojha, playing out 32 dots of 35 deliveries faced.
He swept the spinners frequently during that 225, but today, he was almost Dravid-like in his defensive intent. Despite the rain saving New Zealand a session-and-a-half of bother, there are still two days left, and they still need 238 more to make India bat again.
But if they are to "fight" in this Test, something their offspinner Jeetan Patel said they do a lot, New Zealand have two of their best batsmen out there right now. McCullum, given how destructive he can be, and how much he resisted self-destructing today. Williamson, probably their best player of spin, who in his debut Test innings alone faced 212 deliveries from the India spinners. He also lasted more balls in the first innings than the rest of the New Zealand top five put together had. Williamson is almost sub-continental against spin, minus the wrists. He plays with soft hands, is quick to go forward or back, bends very low when he stretches out, and makes sure he puts even slightly loose deliveries away.
History can only tell you so much, though. How will New Zealand approach this game now? Weather is of course a huge factor, but there is too much time left for them to depend too much on it. James Franklin, who made a calm unbeaten 43 in the first innings, spoke about what New Zealand needed to do.
"We have been working on defensive options because we have to bat a long time now," Franklin said. "We have to bat at least another day and a half. It's all about time at the crease. Our guys are capable enough technically to capitalise on any bad balls. It may look like we have had a slow start but it's also a reflection of how well the Indians have bowled.
"There has to be a bit of discipline. We can't rely solely on scoring fast. We have to take a bit of time out of the game. The guys are trying to dig in there and play as long as they can. And put away the bad balls. It's about not giving India too much sniff."
Franklin's own method might sound too simple, but that is what New Zealand will have to do, if they are to get anywhere close to drawing this one. "I don't think there was a massive amount of turn. Ashwin got a few balls to turn and bounce but that was the exception rather than the norm. Obviously there were always going to be some balls that were going to spin past me. I was just trying not to worry about them too much and focus on the balls coming to you each time."
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo