New Zealand left to rue questionable decisions and lack of quality in spin department
At 51/5, India were on the ropes. On a pitch that was far from demonic, 100 was all the lead was, and at the crease they had a fairly new Shreyas Iyer and Ravichandran Ashwin, who had been promoted to No.7 owing to the injury to Saha. The situation was looking bleak, particularly with Tim Southee in the midst of another otherworldly spell.
But despite having India at their mercy, the Kiwis were able to take just 2 more wickets across the next 40 overs, a period during which the hosts were allowed to stretch their lead well over 200.
Primarily responsible for this was New Zealand’s spin attack, which evidently lacked quality.
Between overs 20 and 60, Ajaz Patel, Somerville and Ravindra bowled 26 overs, but were able to pose no threat to the batters whatsoever.
Each of the three spinners, during this period, invoked a false-shot percentage of under 8.5%, and allowed India to score runs without any hassle, conceding 60 off the 26 overs they bowled.
So non-threatening was their bowling that, despite losing half the side, India batted with a control percentage over 90 against these spinners during this period.
Now, it would be convenient to blame the three spinners, especially after the Indian spinners took 9 wickets on Day 3, but the truth is that they have their limitations. Neither of them have played over 10 Tests, and for all three, this is their first ever tour to India. Needless to mention, India has historically always been a nightmare of a country to tour for overseas spinners.
Which is why questions will need to be asked of the captaincy of Kane Williamson, who made questionable decisions today, both in terms of bowler-rotation and field placements.
Despite pace clearly being the Kiwis’ trump card - 12 of the first 15 Indian wickets in the match fell to seamers - Williamson bowled Southee and Jamieson in tandem extendedly only once till tea. All the new batters were put under pressure from only one end, and the lack of cutting edge from the spinners meant that all of Saha, Ashwin and Iyer were able to milk runs without taking any risk.
Even when the spinners were in operation, there were times when defensive fields were employed, with no slips and close fielders being in place. The move to give an extended spell against Ashwin and Iyer to part-timer Rachin Ravindra, whose goal was to keep things tight, also seemed like an inherently defensive move.
Whether it was the need of the hour, when India’s lead was still under 150, is a question worth asking.
In hindsight, New Zealand perhaps erred by leaving Neil Wagner out to pick an extra spinner, but it goes without saying that Williamson did not make the most out of the cards he had at his disposal. If he did, the Black Caps would be entering the final day chasing a sub-200 total.
What now for India?
Brisbane, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Nottingham, Lord’s and now Kanpur. Not for the first time in Test cricket this year, the Indian lower-order has refused to give in and has morally crushed the opposition through sheer resistance.
But despite successfully swaying out of harm’s way, India’s core issue remains unsolved. The usual suspects are still, well, the culprits.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane once again let the team down despite being the senior-most batters in the squad, and the mess they made, again, had to be cleaned up by those below.
It was another uninspiring outing from Mayank Agarwal, who looked all at sea against pace despite the Test being played in the sub-continent, but at least he can be excused, for this is his first Test in nearly a year. Not exactly the same case with the other two.
India find themselves in a strong position because of the sheer amount of game-turners they have in the XI, but the question needs to be asked: how long can they afford to carry players who tend to be mere passengers in 80% of the games, notwithstanding the conditions or the situation?
With Shreyas Iyer doing everything to make himself undroppable, India will have a decision to make in Mumbai. One of the Top 5 who played today will need to make way, with Kohli returning.
Who that player is remains a mystery, but one imagines it would be unjust to axe Iyer, for he has, in this Test, done something neither Pujara or Rahane have been able to do in the past four years: play and through-and-through match-winning knock at home.
It might also be worth contemplating the possibility of playing KS Bharat in the second Test, despite Saha’s potential match-saving contribution today.
India currently find themselves in a vicious cycle where they are unable to move-on from players due to the individuals in question ultimately keeping their spots by playing a decisive knock while on the verge of being dropped. This is healthy if those individuals then turn into reliable commodities, but that has not happened for over two years now.
It has been a rinse-repeat process that has done more harm than good to the side.