Zaheer's five gives India control
A magnificent display of fast bowling from Zaheer Khan, coupled with a spineless batting performance by the home team, put India well on course to a series-clinching victory after just two days of the Wellington Test. New Zealand needed a strong batting display to stay in the series, but the technique and temperament of their top order was exposed thoroughly yet again, as they folded meekly in 65 overs for 197. Though India lost Virender Sehwag early, that was the only negative in the day, which they finished 233 in front, with nine wickets in hand.
Both teams could lay claims to taking the honours on the opening day, but today belonged quite emphatically to the visitors. Zaheer was the architect, knocking the stuffing out of the New Zealand top order by taking the first four wickets. Ross Taylor was the only batsman who stood firm, scoring a classy and unblemished 42, but none of the other batsmen looked the part.
New Zealand needed just 13 deliveries to clean up India's last wicket, but that was as good as it got for them. Ishant Sharma struggled while bowling against the wind, but Zaheer was relentless from the first ball. He charged in, found the perfect length and some swing, mixed in the short deliveries smartly, and changed his line of attack to keep the batsmen guessing. Operating mostly from a short run-up, he seemed to bowl within himself and yet worked up brisk pace.
He started the New Zealand slide, switching to round the stumps to get rid of Martin Guptill, who was judging Zaheer's over-the-wicket offerings to a nicety. But when the angle changed, Guptill tried to stand tall to defend a short one angled into him, and could only get an inside-edge onto his stumps. Daniel Flynn, back in the team for Jamie How, offered no resistance, lasting only eight deliveries before nicking a perfect delivery that pitched in the corridor and seamed away.
Zaheer's first spell read 8-2-18-2, and after a brief break, which included the lunch interval, he was back to wreck more havoc. Tim McIntosh had somehow made his way to 32 without ever being convincing - stiff and upright, he was often late on his shots and played-and-missed on several occasions - before Zaheer ended his misery with the short one. McIntosh was in two minds and in the end limply hung his bat, edging to Yuvraj Singh, who finally took a catch in the slip cordon.
That brought together Taylor and Jesse Ryder, easily New Zealand's best batsmen, but Ryder looked unsettled from the start. He was troubled by Harbhajan's drift and turn, before attempting a stroke that will make him cringe when he sees the replay: Zaheer tempted him with a short and wide ball, so wide that Ryder had to stretch out to reach it, and all he managed was the toe end of the bat.
Through all the limp batting at one end, Taylor's approach suggested he was playing on another surface, against another attack. From ball one, he was precise with his footwork and assured in judgment, playing close to his body, with the full face of the bat, and scarcely looking in any discomfort. He started his innings with a superb straight-drive for four off Zaheer, and played several more strokes that stood out. When India had a stranglehold over proceedings in a period before lunch when seven overs fetched seven runs, Taylor broke the shackles with a classy cover-drive off the accurate Munaf Patel. After lunch, he played the shot of the innings: there was hardly anything wrong with Zaheer's delivery, which was on a good length just outside off, but Taylor was still good enough to effortlessly ease it through cover-point with a small shuffle, short back-lift and outstanding timing.
It was an innings that deserved to go much further, but was unfortunately cut short when umpire Daryl Harper upheld an appeal for a catch down the leg side. Replays suggested there was no contact between bat and ball, but Taylor didn't question the decision, walking off as soon as the finger went up.
Zaheer was the architect of the New Zealand collapse, but Harbhajan bowled superbly and deserved his success. Bowling at a slower pace than he normally does, he got the ball to drift, grip, and spin in an unchanged spell that began just before lunch and didn't end till the New Zealand innings was wrapped up. James Franklin, who continues to bat above Brendon McCullum for reasons unknown, was his second victim, sweeping tamely to square leg, while McCullum, who was left to play with the tail for much of his innings, edged a cut to MS Dhoni, who marked his return to the team with six catches, a record for an Indian wicketkeeper. That the loudest cheers from New Zealand supporters probably came when Chris Martin - who had scored two runs in his 11 previous Test innings - lofted Harbhajan straight down the ground for four summed up the kind of day they had. The Indians, who are eyeing their 100th Test win, won't be complaining.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo