One man’s pain in the neck is another man’s shot in the arm, but the Indian team doesn’t mind as long as the job gets done.
With Wriddhiman Saha ruled out of the third day’s play with a stiff neck, India had to bring KS Bharat on as the substitute ’keeper. The jitters were real, ’keeping against R Ashwin first-up can’t be easy, and he let a couple of deliveries slip through.
Ashwin was in no mood to be considerate. Tom Latham and Will Young, who had made an unconquered 129 on the second day, weren’t confident on the third morning, and yet they were at the crease.
Ashwin knew a wicket now would make all the difference because New Zealand were in charge of the opening Test at the Green Park stadium in Kanpur, and a not-so-confident ’keeper wasn’t helping the optics.
A lot was at stake. Then came Bharat’s moment of acceptance, mainly relief. Young (89) played away from his body and got the faintest of edges on the ball. It was quick, it was low and there was enough deviation but Bharath knew he had his man. Ashwin knew this wicket was going to change the day.
Only Nitin Menon, the umpire, thought otherwise. Bharath convinced Ashwin to relay his conviction to skipper Ajinkya Rahane. India reviewed the decision and earned their first wicket. The opening partnership had yielded 151 runs, and New Zealand had plenty of batters to partner Latham.
Kane Williamson and Co probably believed they could get to India’s first-innings total of 345. By tea, they weren’t all that sure with Latham (95) dismissed. By 4:05 pm, they went cold.
With Axar Patel (5/62) and the other two twisting the Kiwis in a loop of anxiety, India bowled New Zealand out for 296. Umesh Yadav deserves credit for working the new ball to get rid of Kane Williamson, and Ishant Sharma was in flat out work-horse mode even if he wasn’t particularly good.
Perhaps, coach Rahul Dravid spotted the lack of purpose in Friday’s spell and coaxed his bowlers to put their backs into it. Perhaps, Rahane, tired of hearing Latham and Young middle just about everything, riled his team-mates. Perhaps, the team organically understood what they represent and turned the dials up in unison to justify the flattering of a boisterous crowd.
India did lose the wicket of Shubman Gill, but at 14 for 1 at stumps and a lead of 63 runs, they will feel like they have the advantage. For, even as the sounds of galling horns and high-pitch screeches permeated the open press box, it was impossible to ignore India’s presence on Saturday.
They weren’t a hundred percent - you can sense Virat Kohli’s absence in moments like this - but they were unnervingly professional.
Ashwin (3/82) showed magical control of his complex craft, Jadeja didn’t veer from what he’s expected to do and Axar did everything the textbook says a left-arm spinner needs to do on sub-continental pitches.
Still, it was those moments that involved Bharat that got everyone into the game. After the first catch, he put down a tough chance from Ross Taylor, but made up for it with a smart pouch to get rid of the same batter.
Then came the awkward stumping of Tom Latham. Normally, the stumping wouldn’t be rated highly, but given the context of the game, Latham’s confidence at the time and Bharath’s newness to the Test arena, it was big.
In the huddle, they all showed Bharat some love and he laughed with abandon. India had found their footing. New Zealand were about to lose theirs.