The Auckland Test was a fascinatingly close contest – thanks in the main to Brendon McCullum’s inexplicable decision not to enforce the follow on.
I have never understood the reluctance of modern captains to enforce the follow on. When you have your opponents down, pin them down, keep them there and do not give them an opportunity to get up and strike back. This is the lesson that is paramount in all sports.
At Eden Park, cricketing logic cried out for New Zealand to make India bat again once they had obtained a lead of 301 runs on the first innings. It was shortly before lunch on the third day and the psychological advantage was clearly with New Zealand given the fact that the Indians were down in the dumps going by both the situation in the Test and the 4-0 loss in the ODI series.
McCullum’s strange decision not only saw the Indians put up a fight, possibly giving the Kiwi skipper a sleepless night and many anxious moments but I venture to forecast would also have put fresh hope in the hearts and the minds of the Indian players for whom little had gone right on the tour till midway through the Test match.
First the bowlers came up with the kind of performance with which they have not been associated for long. To dismiss New Zealand for 105 on a pitch that gave them virtually no assistance was a show right out of the top drawer. And then the batsmen showed a lot of gumption in gallantly attempting a formidable target and almost making it.
The result was that New Zealand, after being in a position to wrap up the match possibly by an innings and certainly a more comfortable margin in three days or thereabouts, were kept in the field till almost the end of the fourth day – thanks to their skipper’s decision which will no doubt continue to haunt him for long.
By not going in for the kill, McCullum gave the Indians a lifeline and the visitors almost 'drowned' New Zealand. The full impact of his surprising decision could well be felt next week at Wellington.
From an Indian viewpoint, perhaps it was just as well that McCullum did not enforce the follow on for it illustrated that the batting and bowling had it in them to perform in unison.
More often than not, it is the bowling that has let the team down after the batsmen have put up runs on the board but for once the bowlers deserve almost as much credit as the batsmen. The manner in which they performed in the second innings on a good surface was exemplary.
It is clear that the pace trio will have to play a major role if India are to win the second Test and level the series. Spin has virtually no role to play going by Ravindra Jadeja’s non-show (two wickets for 130 from 35 overs) and Ravichandran Ashwin’s abysmal away record.
It was good to see Ishant Sharma among the wickets though his match figures of nine for 162 were quite flattering. Zaheer Khan, in the twilight of his career, struggled and is hanging in there on sheer experience. Mohammed Shami, who is emerging as the leader of the new pack of Indian fast bowlers, was the best, impressing with his handy pace and nip off the pitch.
The most heartening aspect of the batting was Shikhar Dhawan’s timely hundred. He certainly needed it to boost his confidence after a string of failures had led to speculation that it was a matter of time before he was replaced.
India need an attacking left hander like Dhawan to come good at the top of the order so that he can demolish the bowling and put the opponents on the back foot right away.
Overall the batting had its moments of light and shade but maintained its reputation thanks to the guts and resilience shown in the second innings. However, faced with a daunting target, it was too much to expect them to turn the match around after the Test had virtually been lost after the first innings.
If there is one lesson to be rammed home after the result at Auckland, it is that the Kiwis are anything but an unbeatable side – even in their own backyard. The batting has weaknesses and the bowling is over dependent on the pace trio of Neil Wagner, Trent Boult and Tim Southee who in fact took all 20 wickets to fall.
Fielding is one department in which they excel in and this was symbolized by the performance of BJ Watling who equalled the New Zealand record of nine catches in a Test (interestingly enough held by McCullum).
But this is a bridge that can be crossed with greater discipline in the batting and bowling and the Indians have it in them to square the series at Wellington. The great fightback in the second innings at Auckland should spur them on and erase unhappy memories of overseas Tests (they have lost ten of the previous eleven).
All things considered, with the Indians finally getting their act together, we should be in for another engrossing duel in the second Test.