<
>

Jet-lagged Ishant Sharma stirs India up from slumber

play
Williamson, Taylor propel New Zealand into the lead on day two (2:06)

Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor's 93-run partnership helped New Zealand go ahead. Watch New Zealand-India on ESPN+ (2:06)

It was poised to be that kind of day for India. A day when they were bowled out cheaply, just when conditions were getting better to bat in. A day when their bowlers weren't doing a whole lot wrong, but weren't at their best either. A day when New Zealand were threatening to pull away.

But they kept themselves in the game, just about, thanks mostly to Ishant Sharma.

Ishant was coming back from a grade-three ankle injury, having recovered from it at an almost miraculous pace. He had landed in New Zealand less than a week before the Test match, and was still struggling with jetlag.

"I could only sleep for 40 minutes last night," he said, at his end-of-day press conference. "The night before that, I slept for only three hours."

Sleep-deprived and perhaps not yet entirely back at his physical peak, Ishant didn't bowl the long spells he usually gets through. The 15 overs he sent down on day two were rationed into five separate spells, the longest of which lasted four overs.

India looked flat and in need of inspiration almost every time Ishant began a new spell. The others weren't doing badly, but they weren't doing well either. This might have been okay on another day, but India had only put 165 on the board here.

Jasprit Bumrah was playing his first Test since returning from a stress fracture, and the rhythm wasn't quite there. He had seemed to find it in the warm-up match, where he hit his lengths almost as soon as he began his first spell, but here he looked edgy, walking back to his mark a little too quickly between deliveries, bowling good balls without necessarily stringing them together into pressure-building sequences, and looking like he was searching a little too eagerly for that one wicket that would make everything okay.

Mohammed Shami had begun well, squaring Tom Blundell up twice in his first three overs and finding his leading edge both times. Those balls had fallen safely, though, and the batsmen had become used to the spongy bounce of the Basin Reserve pitch. But as a result of those two balls to Blundell, maybe, Shami was bowling a touch too short, not bringing the batsmen forward enough.

R Ashwin was getting the ball to grip and turn more than a fingerspinner might usually do on a second-day Wellington pitch, and had spun one between Blundell's bat and pad early on, only for bounce to save the batsman from getting bowled. But Kane Williamson was not allowing him to settle at all; against lengths that may have drawn other batsmen forward, he was trusting his back-foot game to keep punching Ashwin into the covers, where a defensive fielder, two-thirds of the way to the boundary, would soon appear.

Ishant had gotten a little lucky with his first wicket, Tom Latham strangling a catch down the leg side. That dismissal seemed to have happened a long time ago when Ishant came back for his third spell. New Zealand were 72 for 1, with Blundell and Williamson both batting on 30.

Little seemed to be happening in the air or off the pitch at that stage, with the sun out, the wind down to a simmer, and the batsmen well set. Ishant's first ball, however, seemed to swing a long way into Williamson. The ball may have gotten a lesser batsman in trouble, but Williamson had all the time in the world to work it off his stumps and down to fine leg for one.

His third ball started on around fifth stump, and seemed once again to swing, this time away from the right-hander. It wasn't a difficult leave for Blundell, but the fact of the ball leaving the right-hander, that too in the air, suggested Ishant might be finding reverse-swing.

Perhaps it was all just an illusion. "No, it was not reversing," Ishant said. "Actually, nothing was happening. I was trying that something might happen from the wicket. So I was just not holding the ball on the seam but trying different things. Kookaburra, after 40 or 50 overs, the seam really gets soft. So you need to come hard and hit the length very hard if you hold the ball cross-seam. That's what happened."

So cross-seam then. The next ball jagged off the pitch, inwards, from the perfect length, which had brought Blundell forward but not far enough. A gap appeared between his front pad and defensive bat, and the ball snuck through. New Zealand 73 for 2.

They were 91 for 2 when Ishant finished his three-over spell, with Ross Taylor, playing his 100th Test, having just kicked his innings into gear with a slog-swept six off Ashwin. By the time Ishant came back into the attack, 17 overs later, the score was 152 for 2.

Williamson and Taylor were batting beautifully, putting together the kind of third-wicket partnership India fans have seen numerous times in their home Tests, between Dravid and Tendulkar, for instance, or Pujara and Kohli. The two best batsmen in the team chugging along effortlessly to consolidate a position of strength, and refusing to let the visiting bowlers settle into any sort of rhythm.

Taylor, for instance, wasn't letting Ashwin bowl his best ball - the flighted offbreak landing outside off stump. He'd played that slog-sweep when he'd only just come in, and when Ashwin tried that line again later in his spell, he got down low to paddle him fine for four. In between, as a result, Ashwin mostly bowled stump-to-stump and a little flatter and fuller than he'd ideally have liked to bowl, just to prevent Taylor from sweeping.

Shami and Bumrah, stretching themselves to break the partnership, erred in line or length every now and then. Williamson caressed drives either side of mid-off, or got on his toes to punch through point. Taylor played a couple of leg glances, off balls that may have gone on to hit leg stump or even part of middle, his hands somehow whirring through the shot despite his having to play around his front pad.

By the time Ishant returned, eight of the previous ten overs had contained a boundary. New Zealand trailed by a mere 13 runs. The pitch, which had offered so much sideways and vertical assistance on day one, was now appearing a lot more straightforward to bat on.

But there was still something in it, and the taller bowlers - Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee during India's innings, Ishant now - were seeming to extract that little bit more from it.

"I'm not sure," Southee said, when asked about this at his press conference. "It seems like one of those wickets where the odd one, every now and then, stands up a little bit, and I guess when you're a little bit taller you can kind of expose that a little bit more."

Ishant had a square-ish leg gully in place when he bowled to Taylor now, in his fourth spell. With the first ball of his third over, he bowled the perfect delivery to produce a lobbed catch to that fielder, and there's no way he could have bowled it entirely on purpose. Taylor, pressing onto the front foot with his trigger movement, was in no position to deal with one that spat up from just short of a length, all the while jagging back in and cramping him for room.

Even if Ishant couln't have bowled it entirely on purpose, there was still a method to the dismissal, and it was much the same as the method employed by Jamieson on day one. But where Jamieson had used his short ball to push batsmen back, and then used the fuller one as his wicket-taking ball, Ishant had gone the other way.

Of all the fast bowlers to have bowled on the first two days - not including the medium-paced Colin de Grandhomme - Ishant bowled the greatest percentage of deliveries (64.44) that brought the batsmen onto the front foot, according to ESPNcricinfo's data. Southee came closest (63.64) while Shami (48.04) and Jamieson (48.96) brought up the rear.

Different bowlers have different methods, and there's no right or wrong one, but committing batsmen onto the front foot will most certainly heighten the danger of your short ball. Or the shortish ball that rears up unexpectedly.

It was just the ball a somnolent India had needed to jolt back to life, even if the man who bowled it would have much rather been in bed himself.