In the end, it came down to the final ball of the final hour of the final day. In front of a roaring audience that had cheered itself hoarse, under the gaze of looming floodlights, at one of the country’s oldest venues, the top two Test teams produced a contest befitting the quality that typifies them. Kane Williamson and Ajinkya Rahane are as far from a boxing analogy as snowfall in this part of the world, but the two skippers played a pound for pound match-up for the ages here on Monday.
New Zealand weathered an excruciating examination by the Indian spinners for 98 overs, including the manic last hour that scraped at their technical and mental reserves. Eventually, the last-wicket pair of Rachin Ravindra and Ajaz Patel negotiated a tense draw after the visitors began the final day 280 runs in arrears and with nine wickets in hand.
India were well served by spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who combined to take seven of the nine Kiwi wickets that fell in the fourth innings on a pitch that remained true to its character through the day.
The morning session saw the visitors seize control via the overnight pair of nightwatchman William Sommerville and Tom Latham. The duo dug in without really going into their shell; and perhaps here is where India missed a trick. Allowing a nightwatchman to survive the morning session as your bowlers searched for the right line and conceded at more than three runs an over for an hour, came back to haunt them.
A number of recent results in India have been brushed aside as a function of devilish pitches; Nagpur 2015 and Pune 2017 come to mind. The track at Green Park though was anything but a minefield. Perhaps mirroring the siesta-inducing winter afternoons of the city, the pitch took its time to wake up. But once it did, the Indian spinners extracted everything they could. Often pre-ordained to thrive in home conditions, the spinners continued to hit the good length spot, making batters commit to front foot regularly. Jadeja led the way with a spell of 15.5-18-3 in the final session, while Ashwin bowled a nine-over spell for seven runs and a wicket in the final session.
The day had all the makings of a teasing thriller. After fairly regulation first three days, the match had sprung to life with some gritty rearguard from India’s lower-order batters on Day 4. A target of 284 runs had never been chased in India, and the Kiwis never showed any intent of going for the chase either, not even after a wicketless opening session on Day 5.
India kept pegging away in the second and third sessions, with the spin troika bowling with unerring accuracy. The reward for their discipline was not denied for too long. Umesh Yadav struck in the first over of the post-lunch session before spinners began to challenge both edges.
Ashwin struck next, sending back first innings hero Tom Latham by one that kept low. Then, at the stroke of tea, Jadeja trapped Ross Taylor in front, and Axar Patel accounted for left-handed Henry Nicholls in the second over of the final session. When Jadeja castled Kane Williamson with an arm ball, the Kiwi resistance, it seemed, was finally crumbling. New Zealand had lost four wickets in a space of 10 runs, and an Indian win seemed imminent. But this after all, is Williamson’s New Zealand. They know how to hang on.
As the final hour approached and artificial lights began to take effect, Rahane, mindful of the minutes slipping by, crowded the batters with close-in fielders. Five men surrounded debutant Rachin Ravindra. Tom Blundell’s outside edge was repeatedly threatened before he was bowled by Ashwin.
India took the new ball two overs after it became available. The mandatory 15 overs began, and India’s quest to dislodge Ravindra and Kylie Jamieson reached fever pitch. With the crowd chiming in, every ball became an event. The decibels around the bat increased, and on-field umpires, who had a rather forgettable outing, were put under serious inquisition. Amid rhythmic drumbeats and raucous hollering, Jadeja ambled in to begin the final hour.
Jamieson was the first to fall. The tall Kiwi had survived a sharp chance at leg slip off Ashwin in the previous over, but could do little as Jadeja got the hard ball to skid and straighten from length and hit the back pad. Tim Southee went next, Jadeja finding the back pad again. With half of mandatory 15 overs bowled and dusk at the doorstep, Rahane deployed eight men around the bat.
Slowly, the overs began to drift away. The noise around the wicket grew, as did the wince on bowlers’ faces after numerous near-misses. Patel and Ravindra, the two unlikeliest batters to eke out a fighting draw on a turning pitch, held a mini conference. A fist pump, a customary tap of bats, and they were ready to make it their hour. Plays and misses, edges falling short, desperate LBW calls, and some world class spin came their way. They resisted.
Green Park erupted each time on-field umpires deemed the light was fit to play. Four overs remained, and in perhaps the final throw of the dice, Rahane threw the ball to Axar Patel, the man with five fifers in seven previous innings. The Kiwis kept their head down and defended, the pressure built, the stadium throbbed. The slow-burn drama was now a full-blown thrill-a-minute. Ashwin hit Patel’s pads in the next over but the ball was missing stumps, and Axar Patel’s next saw Ravindra surviving a close chance at leg slip.
Two overs remained. The umpires looked at the light, again. Play, they said. The crowd once again got to their feet. The entire team save the bowler crowded Patel. Jadeja begun the penultimate over. The drama reached its crescendo. An odd cracker went off in the stadium, but there would be no celebration for the hosts. The Kiwis, not for the first time in recent past, had crashed India’s party.
Kiwis take first flight
The pitch demanded toil from both batters and bowlers on all preceding days, but few would have given four-Test old Sommerville a chance to hang in for long. As it turned out, the nightwatchman survived the entire session and scored at the same pace as opener Latham without being significantly troubled.
Sommerville countered spinners with the simple technique of using his bat more than the pad. The deviations in line post pitching were slow and Sommerville simply lunged forward and defended, his soft hands making the late adjustments when needed.
An apt illustration of his resolve arrived when he faced Ashwin. The off-spinner removed slip and covers, inviting a drive. A forward short leg, backward short leg, leg slip and a catching mid-wicket stood waiting as Ashwin bowled from around the wicket. He kept pitching on his off stump, but Sommerville didn’t drive or go across the line.
With Ishant Sharma being ineffective and India’s field placements in the first hour not quite spot on, the visitors bossed the opening exchange. The overnight pair added 71 runs by lunch, the highest second-wicket partnership of the Test. By the time Umesh Yadav sent back Sommerville on the first ball of the second session, the 37-year-old had ensured the Kiwis won’t be rolled over.
Latham, whose sublime 282-ball 95 headlined New Zealand’s first innings, was peerless in the second essay too. His defence, both off the front foot and back, was immaculate, as was his judgment of length. When Patel and Jadeja went fuller, Latham brought out the sweep or just hopped out to place the ball for singles. His 146-ball vigil was ended by Ashwin when he finally forced Latham to go hard towards covers. The low bounce did the rest as the batter played on, making Ashwin the third highest wicket-taker in India’s Test history after Anil Kumble and Kapil Dev. He went past Harbhajan Singh’s tally of 417 wickets, taking 23 Tests and 40 innings fewer than the erstwhile Punjab off-spinner.
Eventually, his efforts fell agonisingly short of the desired result. The draw means teams travel to Mumbai with everything to play for as selection dilemmas abound for the hosts.