Indian control outshines poor New Zealand batting

Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh offered a hint of the menace that may yet allow his side to recover from their poor first innings batting and steal the initiative from New Zealand in the first National Bank Series Test at the Basin Reserve in Wellington today.

New Zealand lost Nathan Astle, Scott Styris and Jacob Oram in the space of five runs towards the end of the abbreviated second day's play and were teetering on the brink of disaster before Mark Richardson, playing another of his "we-will-fight-them-on-beaches"-type innings and Robbie Hart shored up the innings towards stumps.

The lead for the home side, by the completion of the 55 overs available on the day, had reached 40 with Richardson on 83 and Daniel Vettori still to face a ball.

He came in after Hart received a questionable leg before wicket decision from Daryl Harper.

It has not been a perfect example of the benefits of the elite umpiring panel. That decision by Harper went with more made by Asoka de Silva at the other end and while Sachin Tendulkar's dismissal yesterday was debateable so too was that for Test debutant Oram today.

But all umpiring complaints aside, the New Zealanders largely have themselves to blame for their position and the fact is that it is going to take some remarkable batting tomorrow for them to get out of this hole.

Harbhajan was able to utilise the bounce available in the pitch to splendid effect against New Zealanders who traditionally struggle with containing quality spin bowlers. Harbhajan had two for 22 off his 13 overs while Zaheer Khan, who was the most consistent of the Indian pace attack, took three for 42 in a fine display of controlled bowling.

With the new ball available four overs into tomorrow, India must be keen to make good use of the assistance that is still in the pitch.

Of the New Zealanders only Richardson stood firm among the chaos, totally implacable, as has become his trademark.

There is so much to admire in the mature approach Richardson brings to his craft. It is not hard to understand why he is relishing every moment in the middle. It is a summer which due to the constraints imposed by the World Cup he has only a maximum of four innings in which to play international cricket, and that is not the sort of diet Richardson enjoys.

Scoring runs and grinding down opposition attacks as much through his applied concentration as through an acknowledged basic technique that allows few flourishes, he continually impresses as the sort of fighter this New Zealand team needs.

The rest of the batting cast failed to offer anything like confidence that the batsmen are anywhere near the top of their game.

Stephen Fleming, having offered some hope that he was in for something big on last night's first evening, failed to get beyond first gear today and played too far from his pads to left-armer Khan. The ball came back through the gap, clipped the top of his back pad and cannoned into the wickets when he had scored 25.

Craig McMillan, promoted to No 4, had looked to up the tempo almost from the outset and at one stage dragged Richardson through to complete an all-run four, although McMillan touched down with an undignified dive as he attempted to beat Harbhajan Singh's throw from the cover boundary. He just made it.

Several shots from the New Zealanders failed to reach the rope, holding up as the dampness on the outfield took effect.

Astle looked to be just starting to free up with some of his pull shots, straight drives and flashing cut shots being unleashed, when he got a shorter ball from Khan which stood up on him and caught him in its headlights. That allowed the ball to climb off the splice of his bat in the direction of cover-point where Harbhajan eventually got hold of the chance.

Astle's 41 came in a 70-run partnership with Richardson for the fourth wicket but his dismissal exposed the all-rounders Styris and Oram, and they both succumbed to Harbhajan's off spin, for ducks. Styris was stumped from the fourth he faced while Oram was unlucky to be given out leg before wicket to a ball that looked to be missing the left-hander's off stump, especially when considering how far the tall Oram's front leg was down the pitch.

Hart toiled to ensure a rout was not completed for 49 minutes but was out to the last ball of the penultimate over. He had added only 15 runs with Richardson but the steadying influence allowed New Zealand to fight again today.

Play ended at 7.47pm in good light as New Zealand nears its longest day of the summer, but that was still 47 minutes after the extended closing time. A howling wind continued to blow, gusting quite severely in the latter stages of the day.