India spinners Ashwin and Jadeja are simply unplayable at home, as New Zealand are realising

Dileep Premachandran comments on the ongoing Test match in Kanpur between India and New Zealand.
Ravindra Jadeja, centre, led the way for India's bowlers on Day 3 taking five New Zealand wickets. Tsering Topgyal / AP Photo
Ravindra Jadeja, centre, led the way for India's bowlers on Day 3 taking five New Zealand wickets. Tsering Topgyal / AP Photo

New Zealand had seen the signs on the second afternoon. Ravindra Jadeja was getting the ball to grip and turn on an increasingly flaky surface, and a peach of a delivery from Ravichandran Ashwin had thudded into Kane Williamson’s helmet. But the New Zealand captain and Tom Latham navigated a path through to stumps, aided by the rain that came down after tea. At 152 for one, New Zealand were nearly halfway to India’s total and the hosts seemed to have a real scrap on their hands.

The third day of a Test isn’t called ‘moving day’ without reason. Indian pitches can take it to an extreme, and New Zealand found that out the hard way as the removal vans arrived after lunch. They had lost Latham and Williamson earlier, both undone by sublime offspin from Ashwin.

And it was Ashwin again that opened the floodgates, inducing a nibble from the stubborn Mitchell Santner.

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At one stage, New Zealand had been 255 for five. In the time it took to brew a cup of Darjeeling, they had slumped to 262 all out. Against the lower order, Jadeja was lethal. His trajectory is often flat, but he imparts so many revolutions on the ball that it often spits like a cobra off the pitch.

He also has the delivery that goes on with the arm, instead of turning away from the right-hand batsman, as Ross Taylor discovered earlier in the day. While Ashwin varies his flight and angles and colours outside the lines, Jadeja is like a spin metronome. He gets through his overs in a couple of minutes, and almost every ball is straight at the stumps. On pitches where the ball skids through or there is uneven bounce, he becomes almost unplayable.

The story of Indian cricket, especially in the week that it celebrates its 500th Test, is so closely intertwined with the spin-bowling tradition. Comparisons across eras can be odious, but a dozen Tests into their partnership, Ashwin and Jadeja have the numbers to compare with the best tweakers that India has ever produced.

The Kanpur Test is their 12th in tandem. In 21 innings so far, Ashwin has taken 70 wickets at 18.50. His economy rate is 2.35. Jadeja’s average (15.94) and economy rate (1.95) are even better, even if he has taken 11 wickets less. Only two of those Tests — in Manchester and Gros Islet — have been overseas, and that number is unlikely to increase significantly in the years ahead. But on home turf, and pitches that turn and bounce, it’s a combination to strike terror into batting hearts.

India’s team composition has raised eyebrows despite the dominant position they enjoyed in the Test. Six specialist batsmen seems like overkill, especially when Ashwin at No 7 and Wriddhiman Saha at No 8 both made centuries in the Caribbean.

What this match has done, however, is prove how integral Cheteshwar Pujara is to Indian success in home conditions.

In both the first and second innings, he provided an injection of urgency when he arrived at the crease. Despite the notion of him being another Rahul Dravid-like player, his strike-rate at home is better than any of the others in the line-up. His footwork to the spinners has been immaculate, and he invariably puts the bad ball away, as Mark Craig and Ish Sodhi found out on Saturday afternoon.

The other man who was dropped, albeit briefly, in the West Indies has also made his point. Murali Vijay has been rock solid in both innings, and batted beautifully in tandem with Pujara. A first-innings lead of 56 isn’t necessarily decisive, but the two had almost shut New Zealand out of the game by stumps, adding 107 in just 173 balls.

Williamson showed his class with the bat on the second day, but it will now need a Herculean effort to save or win this Test. Moving day has seen to that.

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Published: September 24, 2016 04:00 AM

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