India prevail in battle of batsmen
India survived a scare from New Zealand to win a boundary-filled match and take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series. A serene Sachin Tendulkar played a perfectly-paced innings to score his first ODI century in New Zealand while Yuvraj Singh demolished the attack in a violent knock to power India to 392 for 4. The mammoth score allowed India the room to overcome a tremendous assault led by Jesse Ryder, who hit a sparkling maiden ton, and his 166-run opening partnership with Brendon McCullum, and later soak up the pressure exerted by a frenetic 83-run stand between Kyle Mills and Tim Southee in seven overs.
The tiny AMI Stadium in Christchurch turned into a bowling slaughterhouse as the batsmen plundered 726 runs, the second highest aggregate in ODI history, but India prevailed in the end by winning in vital moments of the game. When they batted, Tendulkar and Yuvraj ransacked 69 runs from their batting Powerplay, a period that changed the course of the game emphatically. The Indian fielding was sloppy initially - both Ryder and McCullum were dropped - but they hit back with two run-outs when the opening partnership was assuming threatening proportions. Suresh Raina caught McCullum short of the crease and Yuvraj Singh ran out Ross Taylor to peg New Zealand back.
Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan had begun their spells poorly but bounced back for a strong finish. Ryder, who shredded both bowlers, fell in the 27th over, chipping Harbhajan straight to long-off and that was the pivotal moment of the chase. Later, when Mills and Southee attempted to pull of a minor miracle, India were rattled initially but they held their nerve to close the game. New Zealand started and ended their chase well but couldn't sustain the momentum during the middle overs.
In contrast, India never allowed the pace to drop during their innings. The tempo lifted significantly when they took the batting Powerplay in the 23rd over. Yuvraj looted 44, Tendulkar accumulated 24 during the fielding restrictions and India doubled their score during a nine-over period, leaping from 90 after 18 overs to 190 after 27. New Zealand desperately missed the restrictive lines of Daniel Vettori, who missed the game to be with his wife who was expecting their child.
The sparse Christchurch crowd was treated to Yuvraj's full repertoire; swings over midwicket, fiercely-timed cover drives and booming off-drives smashed into the concrete stands. The shot of his innings was a breathtaking six over cow-corner: Yuvraj checked a drive, like putting for a birdie, and the full toss from Tim Southee disappeared into the crowd.
While Yuvraj dazzled with glamourous shots, Tendulkar inspired awe with his innovations. He played numerous paddle sweeps, scooped Southee over fine leg for a stunning six, lofted drives inside out over cover and opened the bat-face to deftly steer the ball to the boundary. Unlike Sehwag, who was bowled while trying to pull a delivery that was not short enough, Tendulkar did not let the temptation of the short square boundaries influence his batting early in his stay. He remained busy throughout his innings, using his wristy flick to turn short-of-length deliveries cutting into middle and off stump to the leg side for many singles.
Saaed Anwar's record score was under threat but Tendulkar retired hurt in the 45th over after pulling a stomach muscle. India's middle-order rose to the occasion; Dhoni punctuated his seven boundaries with 31 singles to rotate the strike to Tendulkar and Suresh Raina increased the six count with five clean hits, the last bringing up India's 18th and equaling the world record.
If India thought they could relax after their batting effort, they were in for a surprise. New Zealand started like a runaway train in pursuit of 393, reaching 166 in 22 overs before they began to implode.
Ryder and McCullum played plenty of big shots but there was no desperation in their method. Ryder stayed adjacent to the line, did not commit himself early to either back or front foot, and swung through the line. When the ball was full, he drove, and when the ball was short, he cut or pulled. It was almost that simple. His balance was perfect. When Praveen Kumar bowled one slightly short of a length, he worked his wrists over time to swat it over long-leg for an audacious six. When Munaf Patel bowled with a packed off-side field, Ryder expertly found gaps where none seemed to exist.
You felt the real contest would be when Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl but Ryder made it a mis-match initially. Harbhajan did not help himself by trying to bowl too fast and ended up bowling either too short or too full. Ryder pulled him for two sixes and lofted one over covers in the first over. In Harbhajan's second over, the ball disappeared over extra cover twice. Ryder brought up his hundred with a delicate dab through backward point. It was not all Ryder, though, as McCullum played the perfect supporting act.
McCullum turned the heat on Praveen, who until then had kept the batsmen on a tight leash with his clever mix of slower ones and nagging short-of-length cutters which suited his packed off-side field. However, McCullum adapted quickly to play several drives. He used his feet well, coming down the track and punching on the up and inside-out to find the gaps. He used the charges down the wicket sparingly but effectively, forcing the bowler into a guessing game and thus, spoiling the length.
It was all going very well for the hosts before they were stunned by the run outs and India came roaring back into the game.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo