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Sidharth Monga in Wellington
April 6, 2009
India ensured they would win their first Test series in New Zealand in 41 years - that probably hadn't been in doubt at the start of the fourth day's play or from the time India bowled New Zealand out for 197 to get a lead of 182. The hosts, who had been on the field for more than five days in a row, except for the 65 overs they batted in the first innings, ended up spending another session on the field this morning.
Rahul Dravid took his world record 182nd catch today, followed soon after by no. 183. The second catch came off Harbhajan Singh, who is in the middle of arguably his finest Test outside the subcontinent and his finest series too. Until this series, Harbhajan hadn't done well outside the subcontinent. He had taken only four five-fors away from the subcontinent, only one of them in a winning cause, in Jamaica, on a minefield.
This series, his first outside the subcontinent as India's official No. 1 spinner, has been a revelation. In Hamilton, he became the leader of the attack in the second innings, finishing New Zealand off on a pitch that had stopped helping the quicks.
Over here in Wellington, Harbhajan had to block one end up, bowl against the wind, and keep the fast bowlers fresh for attacking from the other end. He has done that and more. In the first innings, he bowled 23 overs unchanged for 43 runs and three wickets. Today he was more aggressive, getting sharp turn and bounce. He bowled 17 overs on the trot and got 2 for 36.
Harbhajan is a completely different bowler when the batsmen let him settle into a rhythm, and that's what the New Zealand top order did today. This despite his coming on to bowl as early as the 12th over. His round-the-stumps angle to right-hand batsmen surprised New Zealand and the turn he got from there was significant. Crucial enough to get an lbw decision against a right-hand batsman, after the ball pitched outside off. Jesse Ryder got a rude welcome when he got one that kicked up towards his face, and he promptly edged the next one - a quick offbreak that drifted in before going away. Just three days after publicly challenging them, Harbhajan has silenced his critics, for some time at least.
India may be inching towards a historic series win but they have made very slow progress. This might prove decisive since rain has been forecast for the fifth day.
It will be tempting to criticise India, but other factors have also played a part. For starters, the schedule: this is only the third time ever that a Test match has begun in April in New Zealand. The previous two matches were played so late because Sri Lanka had to leave their original tour midway because of the tsunami.
Second, the start of play has remained unchanged even though the clocks were pushed back an hour after daylight saving was discontinued. In effect, play started an hour late on the last two days; with winter approaching it would be foolish to expect light to stay good for so long. If Andy Moles, New Zealand's coach, is to be believed, there was an offer to start at 10:30 am, but India didn't agree. Twenty-three overs have been lost over the last two days despite an early start today.
New Zealand, for their part, gave up thoughts of going for a win yesterday itself. India might have expected the hosts to risk a 2-0 loss in a bid to level the series, but that did not happen. Could India have done something different to keep New Zealand interested in the chase? They could have, for example, declared overnight with a lead of 531. But they probably did not want to risk defeat with two days to go and with the pitch slowing down every passing hour. Especially when the recent trend worldwide has been of stunning run chases.
Things did look bad during the final session today - what with hands in pockets and 8-1 fields - but not a single catch went down. Neither were those fields defensive - five of the eight men on the off side were in catching position and three saving singles.
India will find it sweet if they end the tour with their 100th Test win and they are on course with six wickets to get and a day to go. But there is a rider - rain is expected. It wouldn't be a good result for Test cricket if the rain arrives with eight New Zealand wickets down. Especially when the loss of play on two earlier days could have been avoided.
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