Mohammed Shami ran in to bowl the sixth over of his first spell. The first ball was at back of a length, angling in but straightened after pitching. It took the shoulder of Tom Latham’s bat and eluded the outstretched arms of the fielder at gully.
Having induced 31.8% false shots, Shami was easily the unluckiest bowler during the third day’s play. The edge was a rare occurrence with him beating the bat countless times all evening. The conversations around Shami soon went back to the 2018 tour. Before the final began, he averaged 47.3 runs per wicket in England. During the 2018 tour, he took 16 wickets in five games but induced a false shot nearly twice in every five deliveries, easily the most among all Indian bowlers.
When India ended the second day’s play, comfortably placed at 146/3, the Kiwi pacers garnered criticism for not testing the batsmen enough. It took a Tim Southee spell late in the evening on the second day and some pep talk from the man himself the next morning to motivate the pacers to alter their plans for the day ahead.
Bowling from a 6’8’’ inch frame, Kyle Jamieson was always going to be a threat for India’s batsmen who are not used to facing balls from that altitude. He became even more menacing by modifying his natural length overnight.
On the second day, 11.9% of Jamieson’s deliveries were in the region 4-6 meters away from the stumps, the length that seduces the batsmen to go for a drive, exploited day in day out by the pacer with most wickets in Test history. When Jamieson bowled on the third day, this percentage bumped to 36.7%. Three out of his four wickets were at this length or even fuller.
For a pacer of Jamieson's height, the adjustment does not come naturally, as he said himself after the day’s play. “Generally not my natural length, taller guys generally go back of a length, a bit tentative yesterday which brought my lengths back. Felt freer today, able to get it fuller and wobble it, change my strategy a bit.”
Having ended up scoring at least 40 runs short of what they would have liked, India’s coveted pace attack refused to cede an inch. Time and again during the New Zealand innings, their run-rate came down to under two. A run-rate of 2.25 in this Test so far is the second-lowest aggregate since 2015. This has been a contest worthy of a final when neither side has allowed for the noose to loosen up.
Bowling the “pretty balls”, the ones pitched at a good length, beating the bat come naturally to Shami and so do to Jasprit Bumrah. The two are not renowned for swing and visibly garnered less movement in the air than Ishant Sharma, who was much fuller. There were frequent play and misses and numerous occasions of hurrying the batsmen with extra zip. But wickets, the ultimate currency for bowlers, eluded the Indians. All this was because of their inability to alter their natural lengths on cue.
Shami's lengths in this Test so far are comparable to 61.9% at a good length in the 2018 tour to England. Luck is often the culprit until we start lifting the layers. As a fellow fast bowler and a greater reader of the game, Ian Bishop put it best on-air, “He’s (Shami) got to know why was I unlucky and make the adjustment this tour.”
What added to India’s woes was a) Latham’s prowess with square of the wicket shots. He has scored 33% of his Test runs behind square on the offside and hence had no qualms to the lengths Indian pacers bowled and b) Bumrah’s indifference to left-handers. In a young Test career, Bumrah is yet to dominate the left-handers as his average of 27.3 runs per wicket against them suggests versus 19.9 against the right-handers. His comfort to right-handers was on display late in the day when he bowled back-to-back maidens to Kane Williamson. The last half an hour lost due to bad light was what India needed to pull the initiative from the Kiwis who dominated the entire third day.
Devon Conway’s careless chip gave India an opening to begin the fourth day’s play. But to avoid New Zealand from moving decisively ahead, the pacers will need to do a Jamieson and alter their length overnight. As for the forecast, it does not look promising. So far, the low-scoring nature of the Test and a reserve day has kept hopes of a result high. But, all this could change with one more washout.