Guptill battles the Narine threat
So near yet, so far. That, in a nutshell, was Martin Guptill's sedate and measured innings on the opening day of the Test series. He was three short of his first century against nations other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. There were only 3.3 overs left in the day, and Guptill's survival would have given New Zealand the edge over West Indies on a day of attritional cricket.
As soon as he played the shot, a slog-sweep prompted by either a rush of blood or the anxiety to reach his hundred, Guptill could scarcely believe what he had done. He turned away from the pitch, took a few steps, shook his head and just keeled over. Squatting, with the bat for support, his head hung low, Guptill did not move for several moments, even as the ball was still descending towards the safe hands of Narsingh Deonarine. A golden opportunity to score big and consolidate New Zealand's advantage had been frittered away.
Guptill's patient and disciplined 97, however, was a far cry from the part of the tour that is past. Sunil Narine had spun webs around the New Zealand batsmen during the limited-overs segment, producing numbers that would be hardly believable even in grade cricket. He took seven wickets at 6.57 each in the Twenty20s and 13 at 11 apiece in the ODIs, while conceding less than three runs per over. How they coped against Narine was going to be the deciding factor in the Tests, and Guptill was also under pressure, having scored only 96 runs in five ODIs with a best of 51.
Having chosen to bat on a pitch that was a little flat, New Zealand needed to cash in on the opportunity. Guptill, in the company of Daniel Flynn and later with Ross Taylor, almost achieved that objective. There was swing early for Ravi Rampaul, Kemar Roach was asking questions with his pace and accuracy, Darren Sammy beat the bat on more than few occasions and Narine was introduced in the 21st over.
New Zealand were 71 for 0 at lunch and they would have taken a wicketless first session no matter what the score. Sammy set 7-2 offside fields and four slips at times, and used Narine for five overs. Three of those overs were maidens, which Guptill played out. Guptill's second scoring shot against Narine, however, was a soaring six over long-on that perhaps gave him the belief that he was picking the spinner. "It's a great wicket to bat on. Once you put down your head and bat, I don't think it's much of a problem." Narine said after the close of play. Guptill did just that.
Amid this ongoing battle with Narine, Guptill punished the fast bowlers whenever they erred in length or line with sparkling straight drives down the ground. He was equally comfortable keeping the good balls out or just leaving them alone. There was only one close call, when an lbw appeal from Rampaul was turned down by the umpire and reviewed. The decision stayed with the on-field umpire because the ball seemed to have hit the pad marginally outside the line of off stump. Besides that, Guptill was in almost complete control against the quicks.
The nervous nineties may have caused Guptill to take an undue risk so close to sealing the day for himself and New Zealand. He was stuck on 90 for 18 deliveries spanning nearly seven overs and on 94 for five deliveries across four overs. Lack of strike and scoring may have played their part in his gut-wrenching dismissal but it does not take the sheen off a well-composed innings.
It was quite an uncharacteristic knock from Guptill. His strike rate barely rose above 50 - he ended with 38.95 - but such a gritty innings was the need of the hour. It is now up to his team-mates to make sure his toil is not wasted.
Ross Taylor believed his side was "still on top" and in the "box seat". With batting expected to get harder during the third and fourth innings of the match, Guptill's innings could be more valuable than it initially appears.
Subash Jayaraman is a freelancer, blogger and podcaster based in Pennsylvania. He tweets here