Kiwis thwart India's victory bid

G. VISWANATH

Man of the Match Rahul Dravid acknowledges the cheers of the crowd for his double century in the first innings. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

THE Black Caps got under India's skin and saved the first Test at the Sardar Patel Stadium, Motera. Thus Stephen Fleming's team provided the first clear proof of having prepared well for the Videocon Series in order to face a challenge successfully and defeat India's designs of giving its slow bowlers the home advantage.

Sourav Ganguly pulls Styris in his inimitable style. He made an unbeaten century in the first essay. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

The Kiwi batsmen did not wilt under pressure. Instead they countered the Indian bowlers mixing caution with aggression. Sourav Ganguly, with 13 wins under his belt and looking for the 14th, was left unhappy with the stalemate and the state of the pitch.

It was the first Test of a fresh season for either teams, the first for India since last Christmas. The Black Caps had played in Sri Lanka six months ago and had exhibited their capabilities in good measure against the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan with Fleming showing the way with stupendous individual efforts and remaining undefeated in both the innings of a Test match. He emerged a stronger man thereafter and his confidence level got a boost. He and the team's coach Australian, Ashley Ross, had brainstorming sessions and availed of all possible resources to get ready for the Indian tour. Ross arrived in Chennai and made no bones about the fact that he was a member of the advance party in India for a particular assignment to see the top Indian players in action in the Irani Cup.

Nathan Astle sets off for a run off Virender Sehwag's bowling in the first innings. Astle made a century and an unbeaten half century in the Test. -- Pics. VIVEK BENDRE-

The pre-Test events promised much. Fleming's team was in the news since the day it reached a warmer Brisbane, to set the ball rolling. The amount of benefit they gained was reflected in their batting and bowling performances, especially in the crucial phases of the match. The seamers bowled their heart out, did not give a free run for the Indian batsmen and kept fighting all the time. It turned out to be a hard grind though for some of the Kiwi batsmen.

Eventually Fleming's team found two men who were prepared to stretch their batting prowess to the limits and beyond. Craig McMillan, who takes insulin shots to stabilise his sugar levels, and Nathan Astle, coming off a knee operation and suffering from a bad stomach on the last day, warded off danger and played some smart cricket, driving the Indians to despair and sent home a message that they are not the pliable types.

Craig McMillan sweeps Anil Kumble to the fence. McMillan shone with the bat in both the innings. The duo saved the Test for New Zealand. -- Pics. VIVEK BENDRE-

The Motera pitch turned out to be a flat track. Four years ago, Fleming's team played out a draw. Thereafter, Nasser Hussain's England did not do anything different to upset the Indians. Now, the Black Caps saved the match to keep the series alive. Seven years ago on a balmy afternoon, Javagal Srinath had turned over a South African team led by Hansie Cronje. As a last straw, Sachin Tendulkar had fallen upon his spearhead to deliver the goods when his spinners had failed. Srinath took six wickets on a crumbling pitch and India won the match. Cronje and Bob Woolmer cried foul, saying that the pitch was a poor advertisement for Test cricket.

India was put in the driving seat by a batsman who doesn't look at prospects in a negative way. Rahul Dravid took control after Scott Styris forced Sachin Tendulkar into error on the first day afternoon when humidity was high, making the players sweat. For more than a year, Dravid has been in top form, except in the away series in New Zealand when bowlers had everything going for them at Wellington and Hamilton. He was always on top of all that was hurled at him. After batting for nearly ten hours he made his highest (222, 578 m, 387b, 28 x 4s, 1 x 6) in a Test match.

Zaheer Khan, surrounded by team-mates, celebrates the dismissal of New Zealand captain, Stephen Fleming. Zaheer took four wickets for 68 in the first innings. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

When he and Venkatsai Laxman were in action, India was in command. Virender Sehwag took chances and perished. But Akash Chopra spent nearly three hours in his first Test match innings and proved that his position in the team was deserving. The fourth wicket pair thoroughly enjoyed the stay in the middle and raised 130 valuable runs. Laxman (64,195m, 147b, 8 x 4s) was a joy to watch. This pair batted in simi<147,3,7>lar fashion in the second innings after New Zealand had avoided the follow on.

Ganguly's (100 not out, 260m, 211b, 8 x 4s, 3 x 6s) contribution in either essay was no less. It might have been a benign track, but for once he looked confident from the start. Towering sixes and off side drives marked his innings. The partnership between him and his deputy exposed the limitations of the New Zealand attack. Seamers Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram bounced short to deny runs. This was a tactic New Zealand used, without breaching the Laws of the game. From batting point of view, the Indian second innings followed the same course. Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly provided the acceleration.

Darryl Tuffey is bowled by Anil Kumble for 8 in the second innings. Kumble took three other wickets in the innings. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

At many stages, New Zealand appeared it would capitulate. But Astle scored an oustanding century (103, 284m, 206b, 14 x 4s). Craig McMillan (54 and 83 not out) offered splendid support before Vettori and the lower order batsmen saved the follow on. The story was the same again in the fourth innings on the final day. <147,4,0>McMillan and Astle together staved off threat from Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Zaheer Khan was less effective after his first spell in the match when he took the wickets of Mark Richardson, Lou Vincent and Fleming.

Commenting that debutant L. Balaji bowled well but without luck, Ganguly said that India would not go into the second Test under pressure. He did not say that in as many words, but was disappointed with the quality of the pitch that remained firm for almost five days to prevent his spinners from becoming match winners on the last day.