Anatomy of a stalemate on a dead Kanpur pitch
The conditions in Kanpur defanged the bowlers but they were good enough to deny the batters any adventure
Conditions. Bowlers. Batters.
After a certain level - and Test cricket between two best Test sides in the world is beyond that certain level - that's the order of influence on events in Test cricket.
The 2518th ball of this Kanpur Test was the first time a bat-pad catch carried to a catching fielder. Because the fielder was standing too close, he didn't have the time to catch this one. One more would carry later but fall wide of the leg gully. One catch in the whole match carried to a slip, that too off a fast bowler and that too when the second slip stood half way in from the usual position. Fast bowlers could still make the ball carry to the wicketkeeper, but of the two catches taken by the wicketkeeper off spin bowling, one was a shooter and took a great catch.
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In all, four out of 36 wickets fell to non-wicketkeeper catches. That is the joint-lowest in a Test in India since 2001. India's coach Rahul Dravid will remember the other Test well because it was played at the same ground and involved him being in the field for 254 overs for 13 wickets against Andrew Hall and friends.
Suffice to say the pitch took a big part of the bowlers' armoury out. There was turn on it, but the bounce only varied down and not up. Even if you were beaten in flight, you had time to adjust because of the slowness of the turn. The spinners were basically reduced to playing for lbw or bowled. It is no surprise we didn't get a result.
It is a surprise, though, that we came within a wicket of achieving a result. Had the light stayed good for 10 more minutes on each day, we probably would have had a result. In matches that at least 35 wickets have fallen in all Test cricket, four non-wicketkeeper catches is the lowest. It is a tribute to the quality of bowling in this Test that we came this close. That they found ways to get 36 batters out.
Most of the time, spinners endeavour to bring batters forward without letting them drive the ball. On a helpful pitch, if you keep making the batter play the forward-defensive, you can get wickets. All dismissals are in play. Here you had to deny them the forward-defensive to stay in the game. The problem was, the quicker you bowled to set them back, the less purchase you got from the pitch.
And these are Test batters of the two best teams in the world: if the ball turns as much as expected, and in the direction expected, they are not going to get out. Especially New Zealand batters don't usually make unforced errors. Especially when they decide they don't have to score runs. There were only a handful deliveries with natural variation.
R Ashwin proved once again what a wizard he is with the ball, trying everything to get a response out of a dead pitch, all kinds of angular run-ups, different grips, different release points, but still keeping the ball on a string, hardly giving away any loose balls, frequently beating batters in the air.
In the first innings, Axar Patel found turn with roundarm deliveries and varied his pace to pick up a five-for. On the final day, even as all the life had left the pitch, Ravindra Jadeja managed to find turn at high pace and a flat trajectory to send three batters back - including Kane Williamson - when they should have been forward on this slow, low pitch. All his celebrappeals were well-earned.
Speaking of keeping players from coming forward, Kyle Jamieson's height did that job too. He and Tim Southee picked 14 wickets between them, bowling conventional swing and seam and not a lot of reverse-swing. It raised a question mark over their spinners who went at 2.89 an over and averaged 97.67 as against India's 1.58 and 17.58. Do you keep on picking two spinners just because it is India or do you play your best bowlers?
Williamson defended them. They are coming straight from weeks of a lockdown in their houses in Auckland. They needed overs under their belt to find the rhythm and the accuracy. In the same breath he acknowledged it was the seamers that kept them in the game. Will they add a seamer in Mumbai to have a bigger say in the game? The conditions will have a say even in that decision.
Tom Latham batted a total of 428 balls, but was allowed to score just 147 runs. It was not a conscious decision made by him, but forced on him by the quality of the bowling. Because India are dominant at home, it is easy to forget this was a pretty bold declaration if you have skin in the game. It wasn't even three runs an over required. Had they not bowled as well as they did, Latham and others would have scored faster and threatened to win the Test. They simply weren't allowed to.
It took India a rearguard on the fourth day to even reach this point, which is weird for this pitch. All through the Test, India's mistakes with the bat proved costlier, 17 of them falling for 164 mistakes while New Zealand made 233 errors for their 19 dismissals. What it has done is direct more scrutiny towards Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. There is too much talent in India for their places to not come under the scanner.
There was one thing the batters had direct influence on. The timing of the declaration. That was one period when it seemed from the outside that India batted too long without showing the intent to declare. The last unbeaten partnership added just 67 runs in 20.4 overs. It turns out that in a match where runs were scored at 2.4 an over, India saw this as the best tempo they could manage without giving New Zealand a window into the match.
Dravid said that till about 45 minutes before they eventually declared they were themselves in a precarious situation. And if they had set New Zealand around 240 in 110 overs, the match was not safe. Adventurous declarations on an unresponsive pitch against the No. 1 Test side in the world sound more fun from the outside.
There must have been something in the conditions and the bowling that neither side tried any adventure on the last two days.
In the end the conditions won. But what drama. All five days' hard work came down to the last few minutes of the Test. Fading light. Ticking clock. Light meter coming out every over. Desperate reviews to take time out of the game. Amid all this, the Jadeja peaches, Ashwin's wizardry. A leg glance hitting a rough patch and changing direction to hit Tom Blundell's wicket. Of all the ways to get out. Of all the ways to draw reward for a day's toil. New Zealand hanging on for dear life. Just cover the stumps, move forward and don't miss the ball. Again and again till it becomes the seventh-longest fourth innings to secure a draw in India. No respite through boundaries. One team wanting to slow down the sunset. The other wondering why it isn't dark already.
Now they rest, satisfied they gave it their all. Only to do it all again in four days' time. What will the conditions in Mumbai be like?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo