Centuries galore

India had to bat resolutely on days four and five, and it did exactly that. Gautam Gambhir ground out a determined, hard-fought century (137), his fifth in Tests, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

India was outplayed for three days of the second Test, a position of affairs the side isn’t terribly familiar with, but it fought hard over the next two days to save the game. Without captain M.S. Dhoni, who injured his back before the match, India saw New Zealand run up 619 for nine declared after winning an important toss on a flat track, its only redeeming feature being its bounce.

New Zealand crumpled to 23 for three, but India’s raggedness in the field, which blighted the touring side all day, cost it dearly. Ross Taylor was dropped by Yuvraj Singh at third slip for four. He went on to make 151, adding 271 with Jesse Ryder, who scored a marvellous double-century.

“It happens in Test matches,” Sehwag said after the first day. “If we had taken Taylor’s catch it would have been 27 for four. We missed our chances and that is why he scored runs. If we had taken catches, we could have taken seven or eight wickets. But it happens in cricket. Some days you catch everything, some days you drop everything. But we have to improve our fielding especially with out catches.”

Taylor’s third Test century was less assured than Ryder’s second, but together they provided rich entertainment, scoring at over four and a half runs an over. “I haven’t scored any significant runs for a while now and I was probably a little bit more nervous than I have been in the past,” said Taylor describing his thoughts as he walked in to bat.

“I felt okay out there and Jesse was a big help throughout that whole innings. He was geeing me on a lot. We have to give a lot of credit to Jesse for his maturity and for keeping me going and hopefully, I did the same to him.”

Ryder, if he keeps his head, has the potential to be a genuinely great Test batsman. The 24-year-old has had a troubled life, and one senses he’s most comfortable batting. Nothing seems to trouble him at the crease; confidence is often a consequence of immense natural talent, and the left-hander is blessed. Moreover, he has the patience, the concentration, and the stamina needed for big innings.

His ability to access easy power, finding the boundary off a variety of lines and lengths, takes little out of him and advances his score rapidly. His ball-striking through the off-side in the second Test was exceptional, and watching him one couldn’t help but marvel at how he reduced batting to its simplest principles.

Wicketkeeper-batsman Brendon McCullum made his third Test century, as New Zealand piled on the punishment. McCullum’s footwork gets him in fine position: deep in the crease so he can square- and back-cut, and tickle around the corner; far enough forward so he can drive in his typical loose-handed style. The century brought him great satisfaction.

“It was so long between hundreds, and some 90s and 80s between that as well, and knowing at the back of my mind, no disrespect to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, to get one against a top quality side like India means a lot,” he said.

India raised 305 in its first innings, nowhere near enough when responding to a score in excess of 600. Rahul Dravid (83), Sachin Tendulkar (49), and V.V.S. Laxman (76) managed two partnerships of 87 and 81 between them. But all the batsmen fell to poor strokes, as it sometimes happens with a line-up of aggressors.

Dravid fell at a crucial time — it was 20 minutes to tea and two overs from the second new ball — and India was dismissed with a little over an hour to go on the third day. It must be said that New Zealand’s bowlers stuck to their task with admirable discipline.

“I think the Kiwi bowlers bowled really disciplined lines and lengths,” said Laxman. “See we all played our natural games, and sometimes while playing your natural games you can fall and get out. I think it’s very important to play your natural game. You can’t think the opposition has scored 600-odd runs. If you play too defensively the bowlers will get on top of you. So it’s important each one plays their own game, although it’s important to spend as much time as possible in the middle.”

During the course of India’s first innings, Chris Martin became the fifth New Zealand bowler to take 150 Test wickets, reaching the milestone when he had Yuvraj Singh caught in the slips. Ryder continued his grand time, having Dravid caught behind of a short, wide delivery, a vital blow, and leaping gracefully at gully to terminate India’s innings.

India had to bat resolutely on days four and five, and it did exactly that. Gautam Gambhir ground out a determined, hard-fought century (137), his fifth in Test cricket, batting for ten hours and 42 minutes. The 27-year-old has had a remarkable year and a bit in international cricket, but his effort in the second Test was his most significant.

Gambhir, although less certain than Dravid during their time together, wasn’t found wanting in patience and technique. His defensive play off either foot against both pace and spin was safe, his bat straight, the transfer of weight ideal. Admirably, he didn’t stop advancing to the spinners — indeed, he brought up both his 50 and his 100 by gliding down the track to Vettori and striking the ball fearlessly to leg.

Gambhir and Dravid, until the latter’s unlucky exit, had the fortune such an enterprise requires. “They knew they had a sniff and they had their tails up,” Dravid said. “We had to get through the first session (on day four). Hats off to Gautam. He will learn a lot from this innings and probably more than any he has played in his career. This will give him a lot of confidence in showing that he can read a situation and he can play differently. He must be tired, but the tiredness after making a Test hundred is the greatest tiredness in the world.”

Gambhir continued his vigil deep into day five. Along the way, Tendulkar helped himself to a glorious half-century, although his dismissal early on day five offered New Zealand a sniff.

But Laxman batted beautifully, soundly till tea and aggressively thereafter to make his 14th Test hundred, another innings that materialised when his side needed it the most.

THE SCORES

Second Test, Napier, March 26-30. Match drawn.

New Zealand — 1st innings: T. McIntosh c Karthik b I. Sharma 12; M. Guptill c Sehwag b Zaheer 8; J. How b Zaheer 1; L. Taylor c Yuvraj b Harbhajan 151; J. Ryder b Zaheer 201; J. Franklin (run out) 52; B. McCullum c Tendulkar b I. Sharma 115; D. Vettori b I. Sharma 55; J. Patel c I. Sharma b Harbhajan 1; I. O’Brien (not out) 1; Extras (b-7, lb-8, nb-7) 22. Total (for nine wkts., decl.): 619.

Fall of wickets: 1-21, 2-22, 3-23, 4-294, 5-415, 6-477, 7-605, 8-618, 9-619.

India bowling: Zaheer 34-6-129-3; I. Sharma 27-5-95-3; M. Patel 28-3-128-0; Harbhajan 41.4-7-120-2; Sehwag 12-0-73-0; Yuvraj 12-0-59-0.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir c Vettori b J. Patel 16; V. Sehwag c McCullum b Vettori 34; R. Dravid c McCullum b Ryder 83; I. Sharma lbw b Vettori 0; S. Tendulkar c Taylor b J. Patel 49; V. V. S. Laxman c McIntosh b Martin 76; Yuvraj Singh c McIntosh b Martin 0; D. Karthik c Ryder b Martin 6; Harbhajan Singh c Martin b O’Brien 18; Zaheer Khan c Ryder b O’Brien 8; M. Patel (not out) 0; Extras (b-1, lb-7, nb-7) 15. Total: 305.

Fall of wickets: 1-48, 2-73, 3-78, 4-165, 5-246, 6-253, 7-270, 8-291, 9-305.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 24-5-89-3; Franklin 15-4-34-0; Vettori 19-5-45-2; O’Brien 13.5-4-66-2; J. Patel 19-2-60-2; Ryder 3-1-3-1.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir lbw b J. Patel 137; V. Sehwag lbw b J. Patel 22; R. Dravid c How b Vettori 62; S. Tendulkar c McCullum b Martin 64; V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 124; Yuvraj Singh (not out) 54; Extras (b-9, lb-1, nb-3) 13. Total (for four wkts.): 476.

Fall of wickets: 1-30, 2-163, 3-260, 4-356.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 30-8-86-1; O’Brien 32-9-94-0; Franklin 21-5-48-0; J. Patel 45-10-120-2; Ryder 11-5-38-0; Vettori 38-13-76-1; Taylor 2-1-4-0; How 1-1-0-0.