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Match Analysis

Tim Southee and a five-for of rare mastery

The New Zealand quick defied a slow and low pitch to produce a spell for the ages

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
How do you come to India and win a Test really? You can win the toss, bat first, post a big total and bury them under the runs and reverse-swing, like England did in Chennai. Except that has happened only once in the last nine years. Or you can win the toss on a Bunsen, like Australia did in Pune. Another once-in-nine-years thing. There is also the odd green top to capitalise upon like South Africa did in 2007-08. But the most sustainable route is to have two spinners in great form and at least one world-class quick using reverse-swing as England did in 2012-13.
New Zealand have none of this going for them. They have lost the toss, their spinners haven't been threatening, and this is a low and slow pitch that is going to turn in the second half of the match. There is a still a long way to go for New Zealand - remember they ended day two of their last Kanpur Test at 152 for 1 in response to India's 318 - but they have taken the unlikeliest of routes to give themselves a good chance.
You have to really strain to think of the last time a fast bowler bowled as well as Tim Southee did without much help from reverse swing or a green top or the highly uneven bounce of a second innings. Southee got Cheteshwar Pujara out on day one by going wide on the crease and reversing it away from him, but that was a brief window of reverse swing. All his other four wickets were classic swing and seam bowling on an unhelpful surface, which should make this an extremely cherished piece of bowling.
In recent times, or at least since Kyle Abbott's five-for in Delhi in 2015-16, only Bhuvneshwar Kumar has been this effective without help from reverse swing or the pitch. Southee is similar in that he swings the ball in the air. A veteran of 79 Tests, he has mastered the art of moving it just enough, doing it for long enough, using the angles, and getting something out of the older ball even if it is not reversing. Unlike Bhuvneshwar, Southee doesn't have the inswinger, but he makes up for it with the wobble-seam ball, which accounted for Axar Patel in Kanpur.
Forget the results and wickets, they are a byproduct. Just watch again how he bowled to Ravindra Jadeja at the start of the second day, and you will know it was a master at work. Southee had given his side a fitness scare on the first day, walking off with a tight groin. Once assured by medical staff it was not muscular but probably a tendon, he came back. Gingerly.
During that period, India punished the lesser bowlers and went to the final session without losing a wicket. Both Shreyas Iyer and Jadeja had half-centuries to their name when play resumed on day two. Southee had a four-over old ball, but not much else in his favour. There was no movement off the surface or big swing in the air.
Southee went round the wicket and began widish but on a good length. Slowly he worked his way in closer and closer. Four leaves, and then the right-to-left natural swing, and a pretty close lbw appeal that Jadeja survived on umpire's call. Back wide again, and then getting closer and closer, with the seventh ball bang on the stumps and swinging past his defence.
This was high-quality swing bowling, but not swing bowling that bursts through line-ups. His fifth wicket came in his 25th over. He had to persevere. He had to create angles and confusion. The control was immaculate. He conceded just six runs on the leg side to right-hand batters.
That Southee is the one to execute such a rare event should not be a big surprise. In 12 Tests in Asia, he now averages 23.86, which is better than his overall average of 27.99. Among pace bowlers, only Zaheer Khan has taken more five-fors in India this century than Southee's two, level with Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Dale Steyn. Since 2018, Southee averages 16.39 with the old ball - overs 40 to 80, that is.
While all data indicates Southee should do well in India, visual cues suggest otherwise. He doesn't have the speed in the air that Steyn works with. He doesn't have the height that Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath benefited from. He has just used his experience to become a master of control and then little variations here and there.
This is Southee's third Test tour of India to go with two each to Sri Lanka and the UAE. These days he keeps a red ball handy when he travels for white-ball tours, the IPL or the World Cup even. Just to get a feel of it "whenever possible". In the nets he bowls a lot with the old ball. He can't exactly point out what he is doing differently to previously when he used to average 30.81 with the older ball.
"Not too sure what exactly," he said. "Just a shift I made without really knowing. Training and working a lot harder with the older ball. You bowl a majority of balls with the older ball. That shift at training to actually working more with the older ball. When the ball swings, it is my main skill. When it is swinging, you are more dangerous, but you still have to find a way to be a threat with the older ball."
All this experience will be called upon if New Zealand are to continue to stay competitive in the series, but for now cherish this spell of mastery with the second new ball rarely seen in India, nursing a niggle and his side one hour from being batted out of the contest.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo