December 10, 2011

A battle's on at the Bellerive!

As I start to write this (14:42 hours HKT), New Zealand are 127-3, which is an overall lead of 141 over their Trans-Tasman rivals Australia, in the second test at the Bellerive Oval in Hobart. Playing a game that is as antagonistic to his nature as it is to Sehwag, the Kiwi skipper Ross Taylor is unbeaten on 35 off a hundred deliveries, steadily taking New Zealand to some semblance of safety. In what has been New Zealand's most secure display with the bat on this tour, the doggedness and the determination that has so often characterised New Zealand teams of the past has thankfully returned, and is clear for all to see. It will be wonderful, therefore, if the New Zealanders can make their final innings with the bat on the tour a series-levelling one. But whether that happens or not today's play has been yet another advert to test cricket, coming in the back of Australia's series-levelling triumph versus South Africa at Johannesberg and the enthralling tied-draw that India and West Indies played out in Mumbai.


Although I joined live action only during the fading moments of the second session, I realised instantaneously that nothing had been 'fading' about the day's play. Dean Brownlie, the Western Australian who crossed over to New Zealand to give himself more chances of playing first-class cricket, might have been laughed at for saying yesterday that he considered 150 a good score. James Pattinson, with commonsense and the Australian bravado intact, had said that 150 is below-par on any type of surface. In the event, the New Zealander proved correct as Australia had been bowled out for 136 - reportedly their third lowest score against the neighbours, and yet another nadir for the troubled Australian batting line-up . The lead might have been greater had it not been for gritty lower-order efforts from Peter "thorn-in-the-flesh" Siddle and Pattinson, but New Zealand would have taken fourteen when the Australian innings started. At tea with all their wickets intact they led by 26.

The session that followed was test cricket at its subtlest and best. Under muggy skies the ball bounced over the stumps sometimes and kept low other times. And even if you had shut your eyes to the action, the first-rate descriptions from the Channel 9 commentary team (a post on whom will follow, another day) would have given you more than an adequate picture. Brendon McCullum left to a straightening snorter from Pattinson that pitched full, squared up the aggressor, got the edge and reached Hughes' at third slip, while Martin Guptill went to town flirting with a Siddle delivery that Boycott would have left alone even in his sleep only to see the edge taken by Haddin comfortably.

Then Ryder and Taylor resisted, the stocky man the more comfortable of the two, in spurts of attack as well as solid defence, and the diminutive skipper ungainly and ugly, playing across his front pad, opening himself too much because of his technique that compels the predominant on-sidedness of his strokeplay, but batting as if for the match and his life simultaneously. Edges were squirted to third-man, balls were left on bounce, Phil Hughes - ye, of great misfortunes currently - dropped Taylor at gully, a chance the young man may come to rue, and Ryder leant back on a front foot cover-drive through extra cover, majesty and elegance written in the stroke. And when it seemed like the Kiwis were on the road to safety, brilliance counterpunched them on the gut. Michael Hussey bowled a harmless leg side delivery, on which Ryder failed to get bat or pad. His front and back leg were switching places more in routine than as an effect of over-balancing, and Haddin whipped the bails off. A casual moment that appeared nonexistent had been converted into a wicket and Ryder was obviously stunned as he trudged back. It was ironic that Ian Healy who had castigated Haddin's keeping a week earlier was on air during the stumping. When Tony Greig asked him how much he would give for the stumping out of 10, Heals replied 10!

Kane Williamson arrived at Ryder's exit and played in a fashion that matched his test hundred on debut against India last year for composure if not style. Surprisingly, with Taylor playing the blocking game Williamson kept the singles and couples coming, putting bad balls away to the fence for good measure, releasing some of the scoreboard pressure his captain must have felt. Towards the end of the day the Sun came out, and it seemed like a congratulatory gesture from the skies to a New Zealand team that has done the hard work to get their noses in front from an impossible position, and will go into tomorrow with hopes of batting Australia out of the test. Ross Taylor apparently averages 77 whenever he crosses 30, and is presently on 42. But Taylor's conversion rate would not be Australia's only one worry.

There was one moment in the day which signified Australia's fall from greatness more than anything else, and it was befitting (or bitter, based on the view point) that one of Australian cricket's greatest and proudest sons provided it. Wrapped on the pad, this time by Tim Southee, the bat everywhere and mind nowhere, Ponting walked - just five to his name. The last time he batted at Hobart he had been dropped by Mohammad Amir on naught and had gone on to make 201, his last test hundred. There was no reprieve this time, nor a milestone as a consequence to celebrate it. After a sparkling performance with the ball and a brave and disciplined one with the bat on a day when the "test" in test cricket was on view for all to see, the Black Caps would be looking to put the issue beyond Australia's reach. They deserve no less. Daniel Vettori, the man whose services they would not have for a while, deserves no less either.

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