Anil Kumble's lack of success at Mohali is telling
First, a bit of perspective. Since Anil Kumble started playing, not even one visiting side has topped 500 in the first innings on Indian soil, which is as much a tribute to Kumble as it is a reflection of the inability of touring batsmen to come to terms with Indian conditions. For much of the nineties, when India were impregnable at home, Kumble¹s hold over opposition batsmen was complete. They scarcely scored a run off him, and he was virtually unplayable when the pitch started to wear out. The enormity of India¹s problem in this series can be gleaned from the fact that Kumble has been their best bowler in the series so far and yet it has been far from enough.
It could be argued that Kumble has been unlucky in this innings. Catches have missed off his bowling, edges haven¹t been found, and on better days, he would have won a couple of lbw verdicts. But for the most part, New Zealand's batsmen have played him with comfort, with even Mark Richardson occasionally trading circumspection for sweeps from outside off. An even bigger worry for India has been the failure of Harbhajan Singh, touted as the team's prime matchwinning spinner, to make a semblance of an impact on wickets that have refused to yield him variable bounce. His trump ball, the one that turns the other way, is slowly being divested of mystery, and unless he masters the art of flight and learns to impart more spin on his offbreaks, it is hard to see him running through batsmen determined to occupy the crease on good batting wickets.
But even the benign nature of the wickets cannot be used to undermine the achievement of the New Zealand batsmen. Of all the non-subcontinental teams, only Hansie Cronje¹s South Africans managed to blunt the Indian spinners, and they did so with a mixture of obduracy and judicious aggression. Often batsmen have succumbed to imaginary demons, or like the Australians to misplaced adventurism. This Mohali pitch isn¹t significantly different from the one on which England succumbed to Kumble and Harbhajan in 2001, and last year, West Indian batsmen were bundled out on a easy first-day pitch at Chennai. In contrast, all the New Zealand batsmen, tailenders included, have shown on this tour that not only have they worked on their technique but have also come immaculately prepared mentally.
A batsman like Richardson, who is surely emerging as New Zealand¹s Gary Kirsten, was expected to offer stout resistance. But by their self-imposed restraint, compulsive strokemakers like Lou Vincent and Craig McMillan have underlined the common-sense approach that has been the feature of this New Zealand team under Fleming.
That said, a case can be made against New Zealand¹s over-cautious approach in the second half of the day. Fleming's objective of avoiding defeat was a worthy one to start with, but more was expected of him as a captain of repute in a Test where his side has held all the aces so far. Only five wickets have fallen in two days, and though New Zealand might yet win this Test, they will certainly not help their cause by batting on for too long tomorrow. Already, 536 is a score enough to make any visiting team proud. But 60 more and a few overs at the weary Indian batsmen at the end of the second day would have given New Zealand a better shot at history. Surely, after having crushed the spirits of his opponents for two days, Fleming is still not eyeing a moral victory.
Sambit Bal is editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and of Wisden Cricinfo in India.