x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Laxman fightback could just be on cards

Those that have watched cricket at the Motera will tell you though that the match is far from over. VVS Laxman was on 34 at the close and has fond memories of his debut Test to inspire him when he marks guard again on the final day.

In October, India beat Australia 2-0 in a Test series. Across the border in Bangladesh, the hosts handed out a 4-0 thrashing that left Daniel Vettori, the New Zealand captain, close to tears.

Indian cricket these days, largely thanks to the efforts of Lalit Modi, is synonymous with preening arrogance, but it was not just self-regard that made most people think that the three Tests against New Zealand would offer little more than a tune-up ahead of the big challenge in South Africa at the end of the year.

That impression was reinforced on the opening day at Ahmedabad's Motera Stadium as Virender Sehwag shot-making brilliance and Rahul Dravid's solidity took India to 297 for one an hour before stumps.

That they went on to add only 190 more was a disappointment to the sparse holiday crowd but with New Zealand slipping to 137 for four on the third morning, a straightforward home win appeared the most likely outcome.

New Zealand found an unlikely saviour in the 20-year-old Kane Williamson, playing his debut Test. Secure in defence and tidy with his strokes either side of the wicket, he and Jesse Ryder added 192 to change the complexion of the match.

Ryder, like many left-handers before him, loves to play India, and his 103 was his third century in four Tests against them.

Their efforts gave the tourists near-parity, but few were prepared for what followed.

Chris Martin will be 36 in December and his last series, the trans-Tasman clash against Australia in March, saw him take one for 260 in two Tests.

With Hamish Bennett succumbing to a groin strain and Ryder feeling tightness in the calf, Martin was the only pace option available to Vettori as New Zealand took the field again for the second innings.

In six overs either side of the team interval, the man they call Phantom landed blows that flattened the most illustrious batting line-up in the game.

When Suresh Raina departed, edging one to slip, India were 15 for five, with Martin having four for 10. Busted flush? Think again.

If anything though, it was the wicket that he did not get that was most decisive.

Dravid watched transfixed as Martin Guptill, a substitute fielder for Bennett, flung himself to his left to stop a well-timed drive. Almost in the same motion, he flicked a throw back to the bowler.

Sehwag, already halfway down the pitch in anticipation of a single, had no chance of making his ground.

Without his fear-factor and scoring-rate to contend with, New Zealand choked off runs and Martin struck again just before stumps to leave India deeper in the quicksand.

Those that have watched cricket at the Motera will tell you though that the match is far from over. VVS Laxman, whose unbeaten 73 stole a Test from Australia at Mohali in October, was on 34 at the close, and has fond memories of his debut Test to inspire him when he marks guard again on the final day.

Laxman only got his chance then because of an injury to Sourav Ganguly, the blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket after a debut century at Lord's and another at Trent Bridge, and he made only 11 in the first innings of a low-scoring game.

But with India effectively 70 for five in the second innings, Laxman showed remarkable poise while batting with the tail.

He eventually fell for 51, but South Africa were then routed by the pace of Javagal Srinath as they chased 170 for victory.

Srinath swung the ball in and used off-cutters cleverly as the tourists went from 96 for four to 105 all out. This pitch is not of the same dubious quality, but if Zaheer Khan and Shantakumaran Sreesanth can hit the widening cracks on the surface early, New Zealand could be in for an uncomfortable final day.

For the moment though, the team ranked No 8 in the world can soak in the satisfaction of having bloodied the noses of the one that leads the table by quite a distance.