For nearly the duration of an entire day, New Zealand ticked every box with the bat.
They did not, like South Africa in 2019, get run over by the seamers even before the spinners could get a bowl. They did not, like England earlier this year, lose wickets in a clutter upon the first sighting of spin. Nor did they get intimidated by the cocktail of subcontinent wicket, Ashwin and Jadeja like most visiting sides do.
They kept India wicketless for 66 overs, and put together a 150-run opening stand. They were positive and proactive with their approach, versus both pace and spin, and played each ball according to its merit. Both their openers registered 85+ scores and they knocked off almost 60% of the deficit for the loss of just 2 wickets.
All this and yet they will take to the field on Day 4 well behind in the game, at India’s mercy.
This is the grim reality for visiting sides who play Test cricket in India: you simply stand no chance of even competing unless you are flawless.
A quick peek at New Zealand’s showing today will tell you that, despite losing 10 wickets for 167 runs, they did little wrong.
Most of the batters spent ample time, were not bamboozled by spin and they made India work really hard to get the wickets. This was no surrender like England from eight months ago; they batted for nearly 143 overs.
And yet they fell 49 runs short of a below-par total from India.
This is what makes India such an impregnable force at home - they always find a way to wrestle back the initiative, no matter how much their back is against the wall. Today they did that again and, spoilers, once again it was their spinners who proved to be the difference.
On Day 2, quite surprisingly, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel barely posed a threat to the New Zealand openers despite bowling 42 overs between them. The pitch did not turn as sharply as it did today, yes, but still, one could sense that something was not clicking for all three bowlers. By their own ridiculously high standards, they were tame.
Today, however, from the very first over they were switched on. Batters can do little when that happens, and so, predictably, the Kiwis lost 9 of their 10 wickets to the aforementioned three.
The charge was led by Ashwin, who opened proceedings on the day alongside Ishant Sharma. He created an opportunity in the very first over, inducing an outside edge off the bat of Tom Latham. His over pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.
But it wasn’t until the 89th over - the fourth over after lunch - that the game started feeling like a typical India home game, where the opposition batters are at the mercy of spin.
Ross Taylor was foxed by Axar, but ultimately escaped as KS Bharat - who had a 10/10 showing on the day - missed a tough stumping chance. This was a very strong word of warning for the visitors; almost a ‘brace yourself’ moment.
But despite receiving a danger-sign in advance, New Zealand were able to do little as they were crushed by spin. They went from 214/2 to 258/7 before they could realize.
The collapse was partly due to the wicket, which offered nearly twice as much turn as yesterday, but it is to the credit of Axar and Ashwin that New Zealand got completely floored post lunch.
Following some harsh learnings from Day 2, both Axar and Ashwin considerably dropped down their pace and reaped the benefits for it, as they picked 8 wickets between them.
Jadeja stuck to his tried-and-tested method of bowling fast and bowling into the wicket, but while he was only able to pick a solitary wicket, he still kept things tight by conceding at just 1.70 runs an over.
There was no way out for New Zealand, who were strangled from all directions.
It is hard to be too critical of the Kiwis, for no one barring Henry Nicholls played a false/reckless stroke, but it has to be said that, at times, their approach was puzzling. Despite having a more-than-decent platform, they were content on survival; not scoring.
This was encapsulated by the innings of Tom Blundell. The wicket-keeper spent nearly 2 hours in the middle, yet scored just 13 runs. He blocked, blocked and blocked and did not even look to turn over the strike, dead-batting a staggering 89.3% of the balls he faced.
Eventually his stay meant nothing as on his 94th ball, he got one from Axar that died after hitting the wicket and crashed onto the stumps. He walked back contributing the same number of runs as Rachin Ravindra, who faced 71 fewer deliveries.
Maybe this is a lesson for New Zealand, after all, that there is no point trying to ‘survive’ on these wickets where you will inevitably get one with your name on it. The Indian spinners were exceptional, but, post lunch, New Zealand just ‘let them bowl’. More intent might perhaps have helped them get a bit closer to the total.
It is definitely something for the Kiwis to reflect on, but for Kane Williamson’s side, today was a harsh reminder. A reminder that, despite winning the World Test Championship, they still have a long way to go as a team. A reminder that India is, by some distance, the toughest place in the world to conquer.