Flat pitch draws flak

Revelling in adversity…Brendon McCullum and Tim McIntosh (below).-Pics.K.R. DEEPAK Revelling in adversity…Brendon McCullum and Tim McIntosh (below).

At the end of it all, India skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni blamed the pitches for the draws in the first two Tests. “The pitches have been flat. Here (in Hyderabad), there would not have been a result even if we had played for 10 days,” he said. Over to S. Dinakar.

The lack of penetration in the bowling is a worry for India as it seeks to hold its No.1 ranking in Tests. While credit is due to the spirited New Zealand for forcing a draw in the second Test in Hyderabad, the Kiwis were helped by some ordinary bowling by the Indians.

The groin injury to Zaheer Khan — this severely restricted his bowling in the second innings — is another cause for concern to India. With several major campaigns lined up late this year and in 2011, India would need its pace ace to be fit and firing.

At the end of it all, India skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni blamed the pitches for the draws in the first two Tests. “The pitches have been flat. Here (in Hyderabad), there would not have been a result even if we had played for 10 days,” he said.

But then, the surface at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium provided bounce to the bowlers on all five days. And in, both, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, there was a distinct possibility of a result going into the final day.

In fact, a couple of early strikes for New Zealand (in the first Test) and India (in the second) would have seen them emerging winners.

The Indian team-management would do well by looking at some serious shortcomings in the bowling department and not seek excuses. When a side is World No. 1, it needs to be assertive and dominant on the field of play. India has hardly been that in the first two Tests of this series.

Instead, Brendon McCullum, imposing himself on the Indian attack, notched up a heroic double hundred (225) to save the Test for New Zealand. The visitor was 122 runs adrift when it began its second innings.

McCullum is relishing his new role as a Test opener and the added responsibilities that go with it. He has given up a specialist role as a Test 'keeper, which suggests there is more pressure on him as a batsman. A natural stroke-maker, he continues to play his shots. However, McCullum has been more selective in his stroke-selection. During his epic double-hundred, he faced 308 deliveries. The man with sparkling footwork and stunning bat-speed also displayed sound defence. McCullum has certainly evolved as a batsman.

In the crucial New Zealand second innings, opener Tim McIntosh's 49 and his 125-run opening partnership with McCullum pegged India back. In the first innings too, the left-handed McIntosh had pulled his weight. In fact, he shrugged off a pair in Ahmedabad with a hard-fought 102 — his second Test hundred. The left-hander is not the most stylish of batsmen — he often moves across and is a candidate for leg-before — but he preserves his wicket steadfastly.

The New Zealander wants to excel in Tests and essentially blunts the attack. This said, the lanky McIntosh did play some rousing shots through the gaps and over the ropes to catch the attack by surprise. He used his feet capably against the spinners and often got to the pitch of the ball. McIntosh rose in stature during the second Test.

New Zealand had other heroes too. Kane Williamson's second innings 69 — ended by a dubious leg-before decision by an off-colour Simon Taufel — was a high quality effort. The Kiwis were under considerable pressure going into the final day. But the languid Williamson responded to the challenge with a blaze of strokes, first punishing paceman S. Sreesanth and then launching into the spinners.

There was no hint of slogging. The 20-year-old Williamson is a cultured stroke-maker with balance and timing. The transfer of weight, on either foot, as he strokes the ball is smooth. He uses the depth of the crease and shortens the length. A few of his shots between point and cover were a treat.

Both McIntosh and Williamson fell to ordinary decisions from umpire Taufel. In the days ahead, the demand for UDRS is likely to grow louder. During the Test, India's V. V. S. Laxman and Harbhajan spoke in favour of the system; the BCCI is still opposed to it.

Although he disappointed with the ball, Harbhajan made history by becoming the first No. 8 to score back-to-back centuries in Tests. Harbhajan's batting, particularly his ability to construct an innings, has been a revelation in the series. His 111 not out in Hyderabad was a typically spunky effort, sprinkled with sizzling drives and booming lofted hits. He is a clean striker of the ball.

The 105-run last wicket partnership between Harbhajan and S. Sreesanth swelled India's first innings total to 472 after the host had suffered a mini- collapse. Maestro Sachin Tendulkar and Suresh Raina perished to forgettable strokes.

For New Zealand, the flight and dip in skipper Daniel Vettori's bowling combined with his accuracy forced mistakes from the Indian batsmen. The left-arm spinner does not turn the ball much these days, but brings about subtle variations of trajectory, pace and angles.

The New Zealand fielding and catching — Vettori set attacking fields — also played on the ego of the Indian batsmen. Tendulkar stepped down for the big on-side heave, but saw the ball turn slightly to find the edge. Ross Taylor plucked a brilliant one-handed catch at slip.

Harbhajan Singh... second hundred on the trot.-

Once again, the lack of firepower prevented New Zealand from blowing away the tail. The side's defensive ploy against Harbhjan back-fired; the move only instilled more confidence in the punishing lower order batsman.

The Test had a few compelling vignettes. Playing his first Test on home ground, V. V. S. Laxman came up with a wristy, elegant 74. He caressed the ball through the open spaces.

And Virender Sehwag's thrill-a-minute 96 in the Indian first innings was a hugely entertaining knock. After an unusually circumspect start, Sehwag cut loose and dismissed the ball to the far corners of the ground.

Finally, Vettori's flight accounted for Sehwag; attempting a slog-sweep, the batsman saw his stumps rearranged.

Gautam Gambhir was finally among some runs; his half-century in a 160-run opening association with Sehwag was a welcome contribution from someone seeking form. But, as the Test progressed, India missed a gilt-edged opportunity to go 1-0 up in the series.

THE SCORES

Second Test, Hyderabad, November 12-16, 2010. Match drawn.

New Zealand — 1st innings: T. McIntosh b Zaheer 102; B. McCullum c Dhoni b Sreesanth 4; M. Guptill lbw b Ojha 85; R. Taylor c Dhoni b Zaheer 24; J. Ryder c Laxman b Harbhajan 70; G. Hopkins lbw b Zaheer 4; K. Williamson lbw b Zaheer 4; D. Vettori lbw b Harbhajan 11; T. Southee st. Dhoni b Harbhajan 10; B. Arnel (not out) 6; C. Martin c Sehwag b Harbhajan 3; Extras (b-2, lb-20, w-1, nb-4) 27. Total: 350.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-151, 3-206, 4-253, 5-269, 6-287, 7-312, 8-331, 9-338.

India bowling: Zaheer 27-8-69-4; Sreesanth 21-1-88-1; Harbhajan 35.3-10-76-4; Ojha 27-4-80-1; Raina 7-2-15-0.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir c Hopkins b Southee 54; V. Sehwag b Vettori 96; R. Dravid lbw b Southee 45; S. Tendulkar c Taylor b Vettori 13; V. V. S. Laxman lbw b Martin 74; S. Raina c Guptill b Vettori 20; M. Dhoni c McCullum b Vettori 14; Harbhajan Singh (not out) 111; Zaheer Khan c Arnel b Southee 7; P. Ojha (run out) 0; S. Sreesanth lbw b Vettori 24; Extras (b-4, lb-8, w-1, nb-1) 14. Total: 472.

Fall of wickets: 1-160, 2-160, 3-184, 4-259, 5-311, 6-326, 7-336, 8-355, 9-367.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 29-6-87-1; Southee 33-6-119-3; Arnel 24-5-79-0; Vettori 49.4-7-135-5; Williamson 7-0-31-0; Taylor 1-0-9-0.

New Zealand — 2nd innings: T. McIntosh c sub b Ojha 49; B. McCullum c Raina b Sreesanth 225; M. Guptill c Dhoni b Ojha 18; R. Taylor b Sreesanth 7; J. Ryder c Dhoni b Raina 20; K. Williamson lbw b Harbhajan 69; D. Vettori c Dravid b Raina 23; G. Hopkins (not out) 11; T. Southee b Sreesanth 11; B. Arnel (not out) 1; Extras (b-4, lb-3, w-2, nb-5) 14. Total (for eight wkts., decl.) 448.

Fall of wickets: 1-125, 2-174, 3-187, 4-221, 5-345, 6-396, 7-431, 8-447.

India bowling: Zaheer 7.3-1-21-0; Sreesanth 27-5-121-3; Ojha 47.3-14-137-2; Harbhajan 38-3-117-1; Tendulkar 2-0-7-0; Raina 13-2-38-2.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir (not out) 14; V. Sehwag (not out) 54; Extras 0. Total (for no loss) 68.

New Zealand bowling: Southee 4-0-11-0; Arnel 5-1-11-0; Guptill 5-0-33-0; Taylor 3-0-13-0.