Taylor serves statement of intent
Ross Taylor has been an integral member of New Zealand's middle-order for four years now, and while he has grown to be the side's captain, he hasn't produced the big scores in Tests with the regularity expected of the country's premier batsman. With New Zealand's Test fortunes on the downswing in recent months, the batting proving shambolic, and Taylor himself having not scored a century against top opposition for nearly two-and-a-half years, the questions were starting to mount.
After the humbling in Hyderabad, where Taylor had a particularly forgettable time - he managed nine runs in two innings and dropped several catches at slip - he had urged his team-mates to be "brave and courageous" in the Bangalore Test. And since the start of the West Indies tour, he has repeated ad nauseam the need for New Zealand's batsmen to convert starts into hundreds. On the first day at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, he delivered both on the "brave and courageous" front as well as ending the century drought, as New Zealand had their best day of the series.
Touring the subcontinent usually means dealing with sapping heat and spiteful spin. On Friday, Bangalore - a city Taylor calls his second home due to the time spent as a popular member of Royal Challengers Bangalore - was overcast with temperatures pleasantly in the low 20s, and the first-day track didn't have too much for R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha. Even the Chinnaswamy, stripped of most of the heavy-duty branding and sponsorship banners that swathe it during the IPL, was mostly several shades of a colour long associated with New Zealand- beige.
Taylor received a warm welcome from the RCB fans as he walked out to the middle at the fall of Kane Williamson's wicket. He began his innings like an IPL one; as early as the second ball of his innings, he went for a forceful cut highlighting his attacking intent. More of his IPL avatar was in evidence soon after as Ashwin was slog-swept for six, and in the very first session of a Test match India were forced to operate with a deep square leg and a deep backward square leg in place. It was the first time in the series that India were pushed on the defensive.
Several critics have pointed to Taylor's over-reliance on the ultra-effective swipe to midwicket, but that shot was less in evidence as the innings progressed, with more conventional Test-match strokeplay taking over. There were a series of drives through cover and extra cover, and a sumptuous push straight back past Zaheer Khan. Even when he was beaten on several occasions, he didn't slow down: after missing two successive Ojha deliveries outside off, and punching the back of his bat in frustration, he swept the next ball to the square-leg boundary.
After an hour of whirlwind hitting post lunch, Taylor was on track to break the record for the fastest Test century in India, Mohammad Azharuddin's 74-ball effort against South Africa in 1996 but with Daniel Flynn falling to the sweep shot for the third time in the series, and James Franklin holing out to a full toss, he became relatively watchful.
Martin Guptill backed New Zealand's aggressive attitude. "When you play positive you are going to give chances as well," he said after the first day's play. "We got away with it sometimes and not on other occasions. That's the way cricket goes."
He also talked of the impact of Taylor's innings. "It makes it a lot easier for the batsmen coming on," he said. "It takes a bit of pressure off of them. Ross is a class player and some of the shots he played were really special."
When Taylor did reach triple-figures, it would have been hugely satisfying but there was no over-the-top celebrations; the helmet came off and there was a muted wave of the bat. With New Zealand at 222 for 5, he had the air of a man who felt his job was only half-done.
He was dismissed soon after by Ojha, but a big statement had already been made. Taylor is captain and senior batsman, and even that doesn't highlight how big a role he has to play in New Zealand's batting line-up, which has reached 300 only once against strong Test opponents over the past year. With the gifted Jesse Ryder missing, and the experienced Daniel Vettori injured, New Zealand look extremely shaky. Flynn at No. 5 has played 20 Tests as a specialist batsman and made only four half-centuries, Franklin at No. 6 has yet to prove himself as a batsman at the Test level, and No. 7 Kruger van Wyk has just scored his maiden international half-century.
There is big pressure on the top order to deliver, and after Brendon McCullum went for a duck and Martin Guptill threw it away on 53, the onus was on Taylor to lift a team written off by virtually everyone ahead of the Test. Playing India at home is one of the toughest assignments around, and Taylor's shot-a-minute century showed both his team-mates and the fans back home that New Zealand can compete.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo