It is premature to draw any serious conclusions yet, but if Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina are hoping for a long-term tenancy of the Indian middle order, they have done their credentials with the landlord no harm in this second Test match.
They did a fine job of dragging their side out of the muck on the second day, when there was a genuine danger of embarrassment. At 80 for four and plenty behind, first Raina counterpunched his way to a half-century, and then Kohli assuredly allied with the skipper M.S. Dhoni, to guide the home team to relative safety.
Kohli was seven runs away from a second Test-match century at stumps, Dhoni alongside on 46, and their unbroken association worth 104. India finished at 283 for five, still trailing New Zealand by 82.
A raucous weekend crowd had gathered in anticipation of Indian dominance with the bat but early success for New Zealand’s decent seamers — under overcast conditions — dampened the mood. Raina and Kohli joined hands a little after lunch, at the fall of the fourth wicket. The former timed the ball exceptionally well from the off, driving through extra-cover and pulling anything short to the fence.
Raina could have been out stumped on 48, but Jeetan Patel had overstepped. He raised his fifty shortly before tea, having helped India go at four an over in that session.
Having plodded early on, Kohli grew wings gradually. Anything into the ribs was tipped around the corner, the trademark whip off the pads appeared, and the drives were steady. Raina fell for 55, when the partnership for the fifth wicket had reached 99.
Dhoni, however, kept his foot to the pedal, on one occasion punishing Patel with successive sixes. The Kiwi bowlers kept at it all day, drawing edges a few times, but they all fell short. With hard work and some fortune, the host recovered.
New Zealand’s innings disintegrated swiftly in the morning. Kruger van Wyk added only eight runs to his overnight score before nicking off to second slip, where Raina held an excellent catch. Bracewell followed him two overs later, run out backing up too far at the non-striker’s end.
Patel and Tim Southee didn’t hang around too long either, the latter handing Pragyan Ojha his third five-wicket haul of his career.
The Kiwi undertaking had lasted all of 8.4 overs on Saturday.
India’s turn with the bat thus arrived barely an hour into play. Trent Boult and Southee were bothersome with the new ball, leaving India’s opening pair looking patently shaky. The first chance arrived in the third over, Gautam Gambhir nibbling at an away-swinger from Boult. Brendon McCullum, however, spilled a dolly at third slip.
The reprieve cost New Zealand only another run, for Gambhir was bowled in the following over, shouldering arms to a corker of a delivery from Southee. Angled across the left-hander, the ball gently nipped back in and dislodged the off-bail.
Five for one is disappointing on its own but more worryingly it has been 33 innings since India’s last century stand for the opening wicket, a spell that stretches back to Centurion 2010.
New man Cheteshwar Pujara perished uncharacteristically hooking Southee down fine-leg’s throat. At the other end, Virender Sehwag had begun to settle down — in as much as the term can be applied to him — unleashing a couple of delightful backfoot drives past point.
India went into lunch at 63 for two. On the other side, though, things turned quickly disquieting. Sehwag went fourth ball after the interval, flicking Bracewell to short mid-wicket. A ball earlier, the same shot — only played a little squarer — had fetched him four.
Sachin Tendulkar lasted till the next over before Bracewell carved him open. Having struck a glorious straight-driven boundary, he was bowled neck and crop, the ball sneaking between bat and pad as he attempted to steer the ball leg-side. There must have been anxiety in the ranks at this point. Kohli and Raina, though, betrayed none of it.
New Zealand – 1st innings: M. Guptill c Gambhir b Ojha 53 (79b, 8x4); B. McCullum lbw Zaheer 0 (5b); K. Williamson lbw Ojha 17 (44b, 2x4); R. Taylor lbw Ojha 113 (127b, 16x4, 2x6); D. Flynn lbw Ashwin 33 (53b, 6x4); J. Franklin c Raina b Ojha 8 (35b, 1x4); K. van Wyk c Raina b Zaheer 71 (100b, 9x4); D. Bracewell run out 43 (79b, 6x4); T. Southee lbw Ojha 14 (11b, 2x4, 1x6); J. Patel c Gambhir b Yadav 0 (2b); T.Boult not out 2 (6b); Extras (b-2, lb-9): 11.
Total (in 90.1 overs): 365.
Fall of wickets: 1-0 (McCullum), 2-63 (Williamson), 3-89 (Guptill), 4-196 (Flynn), 5-215 (Franklin), 6-246 (Taylor), 7-345 (van Wyk), 8-353 (Bracewell), 9-353 (Patel).
India bowling: Ojha 28.1-10-99-5, Zaheer 22-2-83-2, Umesh 16-1-90-1, Ashwin 24-5-82-1
India – 1st innings: G. Gambhir b Southee 2 (12b); V. Sehwag c Flynn b Bracewell 43 (60b, 8x4); C. Pujara c Boult b Southee 9 (17b, 1x4); S.Tendulkar b Bracewell 17 (50b, 2x4); V. Kohli (not out) 93 (174b, 12x4, 1x6); S. Raina c van Wyk b Southee 55 (90b, 9x4, 1x6); M.S.Dhoni (not out) 46 (70b, 5x4, 2x6); Extras (b-10, lb-2, nb-5, w-1): 18.
Total (for five wickets in 78 overs): 283.
Fall of wickets: 1-5 (Gambhir), 2-27 (Pujara), 3-67 (Sehwag), 4-80 (Tendulkar), 5-179 (Raina).
New Zealand bowling: Boult 19-2-75-0, Southee 15-4-35-3, Bracewell 15-4-66-2, Franklin 10-4-17-0, Patel 19-5-78-0.