A vastly improved performance with the ball, some electrifying fielding and 25 overs of solid batting allowed India to claw their way back into the first Test in Auckland on Saturday. After two days of 'one-way traffic', the visitors finally woke up and reminded the Kiwis that they, too, meant business. As a bowler, it was exciting to see 17 wickets fall on the day. You don't get to see it that often in Test cricket these days.
Not many would have expected India to skittle out the Kiwis for 105. Certainly not after they had conceded a 301-run lead. I don't know what MS Dhoni told his boys in that huddle before the start of the New Zealand second innings, but it obviously worked. It was refreshing to see our pacers pitch the ball up. The rewards were there for the taking. Most batsmen were dismissed when they were made to play on the front foot.
Much as I would like to congratulate Mohammed Shami (clearly the best bowler on display), Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Ajinkya Rahane deserve immense credit for their fielding. After taking a mind-boggling catch to dismiss double-centurion Brendon McCullum in the first innings, Jadeja took a screamer to get rid off Kane Williamson for three in the second essay. Zaheer bowled one short of a length and Williamson, India's tormentor-in-chief, executed an on-drive. The manner in which Jadeja, stationed at midwicket, dived full length to his right was worth a 'super slo-mo' look. You can't ask for more — such an effort simply gives the whole team a massive lift.
Minutes after that classic, Jadeja used his throwing arm to good effect by catching McCullum short of his crease. Rahane, another top-quality fielder, took a sharp catch to send back Ross Taylor. The right-hander executed one of his trademark cuts off Zaheer. On any other day, it would have raced to the fence. Only this time, Rahane was alert in the gully. What an excellent low catch that was! These are the kind of inspirational moments that win you sessions in Test matches.
The bowlers more than made up for their ordinary showing in the first innings. Clearly, this isn't a 500-plus pitch. After being inconsistent with their lengths — India erred by bowling largely on the shorter side — on the first two days, the bowlers relied on the conventional full-length stuff to get results on Saturday. Shami started it all with two wickets in two overs. For a guy playing only his fifth Test, Shami is surely showing some great promise for the future. He is a quick learner.
I was also delighted to see the way Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara batted after M Vijay's departure in the eighth over. Yes, we ended the day at 87/1, but mind you, 407 is still some distance away. In the 136-odd years of Test cricket, a score of 400-plus has been chased down only four times. So there you go: India are faced with a gargantuan task. For me, one of the main factors is for how long Pujara bats. He is someone who can not only grind and frustrate any bowling attack in the world, but also score big hundreds. Remember time is not a factor in this contest. There are two days left.
McCullum is wise enough to know that he needs nine wickets to win. And that means, there will be men in catching positions. That, in turn, means India will have enough opportunities to collect boundaries. In any case, our batsmen are natural strokemakers. The key, obviously, is to not lose early wickets. India will have to bat out of their skins to win this one. After all, the Kiwis are just a couple of good deliveries away from taking control of the match. You may not entirely agree with me, but it's still 70-30 in favour of the Kiwis. But make no mistake, Pujara, Dhawan and the others have a great chance of creating history.