Astle pulls the chestnuts out of the fire

India's Harbhajan Singh celebrates the dismissal of New Zealand's Scott Styris on the third day of the first Test at Sardar Patel stadium on Friday. — Photos: Vivek Bendre  

Ahmedabad Oct. 10. Nathan Astle's ninth century helped New Zealand keep India at bay on the third day of the first Test of the Videocon series at the Motera.

Playing his first innings after a surgery on his left knee, Astle also fulfilled a long-standing desire of a New Zealander to reach the three-figure mark in a Test match on Indian soil for the first time in 27 years.

The advantage appears to be with India, but a doughty rearguard resistance by the ninth wicket pair of Daniel Vettori and Paul Wiseman may help New Zealand avoid the follow-on.

Seven years ago in a World Cup match, Astle hit a blazing century at the Motera against England.

That effort helped New Zealand win the match.

On Friday, too, his team was in dire straits. But the circumstances were altogether different.

It was a Test match and he had to contend with a declining third-day's pitch and the spin of Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble.

New Zealand's top order had succumbed to Zaheer Khan's fiery opening spell on Thursday evening and its middle order batsmen's task was cut out when play resumed today.

Astle had fallen leg before to a rookie bowler in Munaf Patel at Rajkot in the tour match and had not benefited from the only game he got a chance to bat.

But today Astle stood firm in conditions where many batsmen might have thrown in the towel.

India began the day with Dravid stepping in for Ganguly for three quarters of an hour.

The first over turned out to be eventful with Balaji hitting the pads of Scott Styris thrice.

The debutant was used only in short spells, but managed to get his first Test wicket only after India had claimed the second new ball.

He broke the eighth wicket partnership between Vettori and Robbie Hart, having the latter leg before.

Balaji was not as lucky in his spells in the first two sessions.

He erred in length and line and was pulled and on-driven by Styris, who was dropped by Akash Chopra twice at short-leg off Harbhajan.

But Chopra made amends by taking a catch to his left when Styris, who was all at sea against the off-spinner, attempted to flick him.

Harbhajan floated the ball while Kumble, used in short spells, concentrated on accuracy.

New Zealand's Nathan Astle lofts Virender Sehwag during his century knock.

New Zealand's Nathan Astle lofts Virender Sehwag during his century knock.  

Astle, at the other end, dispatched Zaheer to the mid-wicket fence and square drove and cut Balaji to the fence to keep the scoreboard ticking.

His sizzling cut shots were directed in the arc between point and third man.

The fourth wicket pair of Styris and Astle added 91 runs and the fifth wicket pair matched it, with

McMillan dominating the proceedings.

Both Astle and McMillan had missed the tour of Sri Lanka last April and were together in the middle for the first time since the home series against India.

Flicking, sweeping and stepping out to the spinners, McMillan appeared to be in good nick before Chopra pouched him at short leg.

He was looking to sweep Harbhajan fine, but the ball went straight into the hands of Chopra.

Astle, who profited from the cut shots, also picked the length well to sweep Harbhajan.

He had a lucky escape when Parthiv Patel dropped a regulation catch. Astle was on 93 then.

The reprieve did not turn out to be costly, with the young wicket-keeper making amends by whipping off the bails when the right-hander stepped out to Harbhajan.

After Astle's departure Vettori put up a brave face hitting five boundaries to bring his team within 19 runs of avoiding the follow-on which Ganguly might not enforce after all.

"It's nice to return to a ground you know pretty well. I have had good memories here. I have also come after a long lay off,'' Astle said. "I just tried to play my natural game. We were 41 for three wickets at the start. The idea was to make 301 and make India bat again. The biggest thing was to put the loose ball away without being reckless. I was disappointed the way I got out.''