India captain Virat Kohli was 44 not out from 124 balls at the end of play
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This match is billed as the ‘Ultimate Test’ on the branding lining the ground and so far it has been emphatically that for anyone holding a bat.
Then there is the weather which has made it a trial just to get on the field and stay there. After two days only 64.4 overs have been bowled and a further deluge of rain is expected on Monday.
There is a reserve day on Wednesday so there could still be time for a result in what will be a low scoring, tense tussle but the ICC may think again before trusting its prestigious Test final to the English weather.
It was more like a summer’s afternoon in Dunedin than Delhi but that is the challenge of Test cricket – mastering alien conditions – and India proved why they are in the final while England watch it on television.
India read the situation astutely all day closing on 146 for three, their batsmen diligent in playing only what was necessary and picking their moments to go on the offensive.
They attacked the new ball sensing New Zealand nerves, moving quickly past 50 for no wicket, but then sat in as batting became harder after lunch when the ball was swinging. They ground out 51 runs in 27.3 overs in the afternoon session as bad light forced the teams off three times, interrupting any momentum, and New Zealand bowled better.
As usual, it was impossible to take your eyes off Virat Kohli. He was chirping Neil Wagner, constantly warming the ears of umpires and cajoling his batting partner but at all times played within himself to remain unbeaten on 44 from 124 balls.
When two years of hard work is at stake in a final it requires flexibility from officials and the umpires were too rigid over the light regulations. It was never going to be a spectacular day of free scoring Test cricket but it does not help when players are constantly trooping off because it is gloomy.
Umpires cite the protection of batsmen and may fear legal ramifications if one is hurt but there is a requirement to entertain the public and keep happy broadcasters who pay millions of pounds for rights, especially so in a final that has already had a day wiped out by rain.
The light meter was first seen just before tea, the umpires taking the players off for an early interval. There were boos when they went off for the third and final time just before 5pm and it was reminiscent of controversy here last year during a Test against Pakistan blighted by bad light stoppages.
Given the frustration over the weather, it was a credit to the teams that they produced engrossing cricket and on the evidence so far a first innings total of above 250 will be very useful.
New Zealand saw the clouds and picked five seamers; India read the same conditions completely differently picking spinners Ravi Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, a tactic that will hold for the England series too.
Kane Williamson is a captain who is comfortable bowling first, thanks to the accuracy of his attack which had the best economy rate of the Test championship qualifying period, so India knew it would be a very difficult test to survive the new ball.
The fact they did owed a lot to their own positivity and New Zealand nerves. Tim Southee has had a bountiful three and a half years taking more than 100 wickets across 22 Tests while Trent Boult’s potency swinging the new ball was evident against England last week.
India signalled how they will take on Stuart Broad and James Anderson by imposing themselves early. It’s impressive how modern teams can attune to foriegn pitches without any warm up cricket of note and India looked as if they had been playing county sides for weeks rather than stuck in isolation.
Indian opening partnerships have average low 20s on the last three tours to England so a different approach is required and Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma opted to bat out their crease to negate the swing and were also positive, scoring freely to put the pressure back on the bowlers.
Southee’s first spell cost five an over as India bossed the first hour with Sharma punching fours off the back foot while New Zealand bowled both sides of the wicket and struggled to locate the right length.
The introduction of Jamieson changed the dynamic with his bounce pushing the openers back. He struck Gill on the visor and a fuller ball tempted Rohit who edged low to third slip where Southee took a diving catch.
Gill poked at Wagner’s third ball and was caught behind as momentum swung New Zealand’s way. With De Grandhomme bowling tidily and Wagner bristling with aggression, India retreated. Cheteshwar Pujara took 36 balls to get off the mark and was hit on the head by Wagner when he took on the pull. He was lbw to Boult’s first ball after lunch and New Zealand thought they had the crucial breakthrough when Kohli, on 17, wafted at a leg side ball and BJ Watling claimed the catch.
The umpires believed Kohl had made contact but wanted to check if the ball had carried. It clearly settled in Watling’s gloves on the full but ultra edge flatlined so Kohli survived. He then spent the next few minutes letting the umpires know what he thought of it all.
From then on it was studious cricket from Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, both patting back De Grandhomme and refusing to take the bait when Wagner went on the offensive with some short balls. England take note.
Analysis: India stand tall as batsmen adapt to damp conditions
For India, the months ahead present an opportunity to mount a case for historical greatness.
Already impregnable at home, they have defeated Australia away twice in three years – including, extraordinarily, with a patched-up side missing Virat Kohli and their entire first-choice bowling attack. Triumph in the inaugural World Test Championship final, and their five-Test series in England this summer, and India can legitimately join the conversation as amongst the greatest Test teams of all time.
This journey could scarcely have begun more onerously. New Zealand, armed with a brilliant five-man seam attack, won the toss under sepulchral skies, further abetted by a 10:30am start. This was the archetypal challenges of Test batting in England, but with the difficulty level ramped up to extreme.
In 2014, Kohli endured an abject tour of England, averaging just 13. Before India’s last Test tour of England, in 2018, Kohli spent many hours rebuilding his technique in English conditions. Essentially, he took his guard outside the crease, aiming to meet the ball earlier to combat swing, especially from Jimmy Anderson. On average, Kohli was half a metre further forward when he hit the ball in 2018 than 2014. The changes helped Kohli average 59, beginning with a magisterial 149 at Edgbaston.
And so, combatting New Zealand’s lavish swing with the Dukes ball, Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill borrowed Kohli’s method. Both openers took guard outside their creases, further forward than during their recent Test engagements in Australia or India, when the ball does not swing as abundantly. At times both Sharma and Gill added to this by taking further steps towards New Zealand’s attack. It looked a brave move to Tim Southee and Trent Boult, the opening pair, and a foolhardy one to Kyle Jamieson, New Zealand’s 6ft 8in first change. Jamieson promptly hit Gill on the grill.
It was collateral damage for India’s embrace of the Kohli template. Since 2006, only once have India’s batsmen ever hit the ball from further down the crease in the first 10 overs than against New Zealand. Against the new ball, Gill and Sharma were an average of 2.24 metres from their stumps when they hit the ball – almost as far forward as Kohli was in England three years ago. In some respects it amounted to learning from England’s failings against New Zealand: both in the first 10 overs and overall, India were over a quarter of a metre further forward when they met the ball. However much they may loathe the prospect, Anderson and Stuart Broad can expect India’s openers to happily take a few steps down the crease to them later this summer too.
India’s team for this match, selecting two spinners, displayed an essential belief in the qualities of their players to master all conditions. But if they back their best players to succeed everywhere, India do not expect their players to play in the same way. As India’s opening pair survived a full 20 overs, and the middle order used their feet in the same way, it was vindication for how India adapted their approach to the specific demands of English climes.