With two and a half days out of six lost to rain and a low first innings total, India needed to start well on the fifth day to get a foot in the door. But the game moved in neither direction in the first hour. In the most straightforward route for victory, New Zealand had to bat once and bat big. They were happy to just soak up the deliveries. They scored 16 runs in the first 14 overs. Kane Williamson scored 15 runs in 100 balls, his slowest knock ever.
40 minutes before lunch, India’s perseverance earned rewards. When in rhythm, Mohammed Shami threatens a wicket on every ball. The run-up gets smoother, the seam position goes back to be the best in the business, and the ball lands in the “luckier” portion of the pitch. He went fuller and first dismissed Ross Taylor and then cleaned up BJ Watling – in what could be his last Test innings – with a peach that straightened after pitching. Between the two wickets, Ishant Sharma weaved his magic on the left-handed Henry Nicholls to get him nick to slips. India went into lunch eyeing an opening. New Zealand’s overcautious approach seemed to have backfired.
But then a familiar sight took hold. Batting at numbers eight and nine, Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee scored 51 off 62 balls. New Zealand were in the lead and in a game when time matters more for them than the opposition, India could come out to bat till only after Tea.
The mind immediately went to the frustrations with Sam Curran in 2018 and Jamieson himself in 2020. Since July of 2018, batsmen from seven to eleven have averaged the most against India: 20.49
With a 35 run lead, New Zealand did not run away with the game. But with time running out to force a result, India were happier at lunch than at tea.
Amid all the talks about lengths in this Test, no other bowler has bowled fuller than Tim Southee. He remains the only bowler with around 40% of his balls at six meters from the stumps or fuller. Having induced a false shot once every four balls in the first innings, Southee had just one wicket for his efforts. Inducing a similar percentage in the second innings, he got both India’s opener.
Southee has three wicket-taking balls in his armoury. The first is a genuine out-swinger which worried neither Shubman Gill nor Rohit Sharma throughout the Test. The next is one that he developed as a variety for left-handers. Bowled with a wobbly seam, he tries to land the ball on the lacquer so as to tail it away from the lefties (and into the righties). In a perfect setup of four away balls followed by the one with a wobbly seam, Southee caught Gill plumb in front with India still 11 runs away from getting into the lead.
With each passing delivery, Rohit looked comfortable at the crease. The positions were good and so was the shot selection. The odd-bad ball was dealt with too. The caution needed for the occasion was intact. In the first innings, he had scored at a strike rate of 75 when the ball was fuller (4-6m length). In the second, it came down to 52. He looked like an opener India needed all this while.
The third variation in Southee’s swing bowling prowess dealt India what can be a decisive blow. It is a ball with the shiny side outside for an inswinger, delivered with the seam positioned as for an out-swinger, in an anticipation of drifting the ball in. It is a delivery with which he got Virat Kohli out in seaming conditions in New Zealand in 2020. In a big moment late on day five, it got Rohit who offered no shot. Southee dismissed the batsman India dearly needed to accelerate on the final day. In another Test with no time lost to rain, the fifth day would seem like it belonged to India. But given the match situation, that singular moment 12 minutes before the end of the day's play tilted the balance significantly.
In nothing to gain and everything to lose, Kohli looked nervy. In a fourth variation, Southee delivered a perfect bouncer that nearly got his glove but stuck his helmet bearing a warning for what is to come on the final day.
“I think we've seen the Indian side probably had their most challenging period when the ball was slightly older. Hopefully, tomorrow morning when the ball is slightly older, it will swing a little bit more, and cause a few questions early on tomorrow,” said Southee after the day’s play, leaving a lot for the Indian batsmen to think about with only one night to prepare themselves for all the variations to come.
The forecast for the final day is better than on any other day of this Test. But the prospects of an Indian win seem minuscule. The first two innings of this match had a combined run rate of 2.4. In Tests since 2000 in England, only two matches have been slower in the first two innings. With New Zealand’s bowling attack, it is unlikely that India’s batsmen would choose aggression over caution to force a declaration. Given the prize on the line, neither side would want to let one hand from the trophy go in an attempt to get both on it.
It will not be unwise for India to not even think about a declaration. The path to their win from here is a miraculous bowling effort after New Zealand bowl them out. The Kiwis just need a good first hour to significantly improve their chances for a win.
The win in Brisbane overshadowed the valiance of Sydney and got India to the final. On the day with a lot to lose in an effort to gain, India would take a Sydney over a Brisbane.