Wairarapa boys punish India
In a summer of gloom, the two silver linings for New Zealand cricket shone bright on a lovely sunny day in Napier. Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder go back a long way. They both come from the Wairarapa region, they were both coached by Mark Greatbatch at around the same time, both dreamed of playing for New Zealand, they have punished many an age-group side together in the adjoining Nelson Park, and they rescued New Zealand from possible humiliation on a flat McLean Park track.
Both have taken different routes to the Test team. Taylor has been the good boy who went down the straight, unobtrusive road. Ryder has had a colourful ride through the fields by the side of the road, with his off-field activities outshining the blatant talent. It was ironic, in that light, that Ryder was the calming influence to a nervous and flashier Taylor. In a way it was almost like Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli batting together at Test level, with Kambli playing Tendulkar's game, and Tendulkar Kambli's.
But that is how Ryder and Taylor bat. Ryder is compact, always has the extra second on hand, looks relaxed, and is more in control. Don't go by his bang-bang style in ODIs, Ryder is perhaps the most accomplished Test batsman going around in New Zealand today. Taylor is flashy, has quick hands, prefers the leg side, needs to keep seeing the scoreboard move, needs a release every few minutes.
So it wasn't a surprise in the way Taylor started his innings when New Zealand were down at 23 for 3. He opened the face of the bat to fetch a boundary off his third ball, and edged the fifth one to third slip where Yuvraj Singh dropped a tough chance. The quick hands were at play again, making him push at the ball early. He slashed the next one hard and edged over the slips. An over later he edged Munaf Patel again, just falling short of gully.
"I haven't scored any significant runs for a while now and I was probably a little bit more nervous than I have been in the past," Taylor said. "I am probably a nervous starter normally, but today I was a little bit more nervous. I was happy with the let-off and as it worked out, I made them pay today."
The let-offs and the luck continued for Taylor as he kept expressing his love for the flamboyant strokes and leg-side play. When he got it right he was beautiful to watch, when he didn't he was lucky to survive edges that fell short and ones that didn't go to hand. Just after lunch, he got into an interesting little duel with Ishant Sharma. Taylor continuously moved to the off side, Ishant continued to line him for the lbw, and the quick hands kept getting him runs. In two Ishant overs, Taylor hit five boundaries - a swivel pull and a whip through midwicket, another flick off a straight delivery, and one drive from outside off to wide mid-on.
At that point, Taylor got going. He looked the part until he reached the nineties, where he got nervous again, almost played one on, edged to slip, and almost ran Ryder out. But that's when Ryder's calming influence came in. "Jesse was a big help throughout that whole innings," Taylor said. "He was geeing me on a lot. We got to give a lot of credit to Jesse. Just got to praise Jesse for his mature innings and for keeping me going and hopefully, I did the same to him."
Last week, when Ryder was on 98 and Chris Martin had to face five balls from Harbhajan Singh, Ryder was the same cool self, smiling, almost laughing, and keeping Martin going. He was unfazed today when Taylor hit straight to mid-on, called Ryder for a run, and sent him back. One wonders if there's anything on the cricket field which can faze Ryder - he has seen much worse growing up. So it wasn't surprising that when he walked out at 23 for 3 on a flat track, the inept-looking top order behind him and a series defeat looming, he was solid from the first ball.
Ryder started his innings facing a fast offcutter from Zaheer Khan, and defended it off the front foot, from the middle of the bat. Two balls later, Zaheer erred too straight, and the wristy glance got Ryder a four. He was off. He was in the Hamilton state of mind, where he played second fiddle to the chancy Daniel Vettori. With edges flying at the other end, Ryder seemed on another island, calm and unaffected. Today though, he enjoyed more freedom, with the side only three down, and it showed in how he picked on Virender Sehwag.
The only bowler to trouble Ryder was Harbhajan Singh, who conceded only 32 runs off 80 balls bowled to him. The others found it a tough task to get him to play away from the body. It would be easy to call Ryder the second fiddle to Taylor today, but he still batted with a strike-rate of 62.
Together, they broke the record for the country's highest fourth-wicket, reminded the local bowlers of horror stories at Nelson Park as well as how they used to bat together. "There was a few times we talked jokingly about the bush, it was good." But - albeit on a flat deck - they were playing one of the best Test attacks going around.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo