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Harbhajan spins India to a big win

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SARDAR OF SPIN: Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who bagged six wickets, being congratulated by his teammates in the first Test against New Zealand on Saturday.
SARDAR OF SPIN: Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who bagged six wickets, being congratulated by his teammates in the first Test against New Zealand on Saturday.

S. Ram Mahesh

The off-spinner scalps six as the visitor has a Test victory in NZ after 33 years

HAMILTON: Since the turn of the millennium, India has embarked on a course of revisionism, altering the perception that the cricket team travelled as poorly as ageing milk on a freight train.

At Seddon Park on Saturday, M.S. Dhoni’s men added the one victory that had long eluded the national side. Before Saturday India had last won a Test in New Zealand in January 1976, when Sunil Gavaskar, standing in for Bishen Bedi, led the side to victory over Glenn Turner’s New Zealand in Auckland.

After the eight-wicket win under Gavaskar, India spent 33 years and 13 Tests without success. But it needed just one game this tour to improve the mournful record. India completed a 10-wicket win with a day to spare in the first Test to take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.

Winning moment

In the event, it was fitting that Gautam Gambhir finished matters so emphatically, racing to 30 in 18 balls as a low sun cast long shadows. Test victories are glazed by their final moments, and it is this glaze that endures over time. Gambhir twisted Kyle Mills to fine-leg to take India to 39 without loss, brandished a fierce uppercut, and unearthed a souvenir stump.

It was also fitting that Rahul Dravid, who has done so much in India’s victories abroad, played a part in the Test’s final moments.

Virender Sehwag had been off the field in New Zealand’s innings — consequently, he had to wait his turn to bat, and Dravid moved up one spot to end eight not out.

It’s another matter that India — had it been suitably ruthless — mightn’t have needed to bat at all. New Zealand, which resumed Saturday on 75 for three, slumped to 199 for eight in the middle session. With Brendon McCullum shepherding a thin tail, and New Zealand still requiring 42 to make India bat again, an innings victory offered itself.

One mustn’t nitpick at such moments, but a criticism shall be reserved. It will unfold by and by, so one may as well begin at the beginning. India made steady progress in the morning session, which started under cloudy skies. The strip had little in it for the seamers, but whenever Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma pitched it up, they caught New Zealand’s batsmen on the move.

Ishant troubled Ross Taylor, even gaining an edge that didn’t carry to the slips.

Munaf Patel benefited from Ishant’s work — he cramped Taylor, provoking a flash outside off-stump. The ball flew to gully where Sehwag pulled off an excellent reflex catch.

Jesse Ryder again put on display his freakish ability, pulling Zaheer for six off a delivery that wasn’t really short. But Harbhajan Singh, who bowled magnificently for much of the day, found the left-hander in front of his stumps with a delivery that straightened from around the wicket. The angle had Ryder playing inside the line. But the tentativeness was due to the fact that the off-spinner had rough to work with outside the left-hander’s off-stump.

Harbhajan’s match-winning spell at Galle last year was exceptional, and Saturday’s effort had several of the same characteristics. He wasn’t reluctant to switch angles; he varied flight and trajectory well, slowing his deliveries so they had time to establish a grip in the soil loosened by the bowlers’ footfalls; he employed to great effect the top-spinner, bowled by hooking his index finger across a straight seam so it came out of his hand with every opportunity to skip after landing on the seam.

James Franklin fell after lunch, slicing to point an off-break that floated across him. Harbhajan then claimed his fourth wicket by deceiving Daniel Flynn with a top-spinner: the left-hander played for the turn; the delivery took the exposed inside edge to short-leg.

Flynn batted particularly well for his 67, although he was dropped by Dhoni off Harbhajan when he has on 55.

His set-up before hitting the ball is elaborate, but at the point of contact, he’s compact. That he found his touch at number three was one of the positives New Zealand can take from the game.

Losing the plot

Daniel Vettori inside-edged a ball onto himself to be caught at the wicket — bringing up Harbhajan’s 23rd five-wicket haul — but thereafter India lost the plot for over an hour and a half. There was far too much tomfoolery and horseplay among the fielders.

Dhoni’s spread fields to McCullum didn’t serve the purpose either. India looked like it could have done with Man of the Match Sachin Tendulkar, who was off the field resting his bruised fingers. McCullum and Iain O’Brien punished India’s laxity, the former blending stirring stroke-play and studied defence, as the fielders’ good humour evaporated.

O’Brien was fortunate to survive a run-out appeal, where his bat appeared on the line to everyone save the third umpire, and eventually he was incorrectly adjudged caught at silly point.

McCullum’s 84 raged against the dying of the light, but it couldn’t bridge the chasm in quality between India and New Zealand.

SCOREBOARD

 New Zealand — 1st innings: 279.

India — 1st innings: 520.

New Zealand — 2nd innings: T. McIntosh c Tendulkar b Zaheer 0 (3b), M. Guptill c Sehwag b Harbhajan 48 (86b, 7x4, 1x6), D. Flynn c Gambhir b Harbhajan 67 (183b, 10x4), K. Mills lbw b Munaf 2 (19b), R. Taylor c Sehwag b Munaf 4 (30b), J. Ryder lbw b Harbhajan 21 (27b, 2x4, 1x6), J. Franklin c Munaf b Harbhajan 14 (44b, 1x4), B. McCullum c Laxman b Yuvraj 84 (135b, 11x4), D. Vettori c Dhoni b Harbhajan 21 (41b, 2x4), I. O’Brien c Laxman b Harbhajan 14 (45b, 3x4), C. Martin (not out) 0 (2b), Extras (b-1, lb-3) 4; Total (in 102.3 overs): 279.

Fall of wickets: 1-0 (McIntosh), 2-68 (Guptill), 3-75 (Mills), 4-110 (Taylor), 5-132 (Ryder), 6-154 (Franklin), 7-161 (Flynn), 8-199 (Vettori), 9-275 (O’Brien), 10-279 (McCullum).

India bowling: Zaheer 28-7-79-1, Ishant 22-7-62-0, Munaf 17-2-60-2, Harbhajan 28-2-63-6, Yuvraj 7.3-2-11-1.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir (not out) 30 (18b, 6x4), R. Dravid (not out) 8 (14b, 2x4), Extras (b-1) 1; Total (for no loss in 5.2 overs) 39.

New Zealand bowling: Martin 3-0-17-0, Mills 2.2-0-21-0.

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