Virat Kohli yet again topscored for the team with a crucial half century that underlined his growing stature and gave India a 2-0 sweep against New Zealand at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
On another tense day of what has been a wonderful Test match, on a wonderful Test pitch, New Zealand fought hard all the way, and came up on top against some of the heavy weights of India’s top order.
Kohli, however, held firm, and with MS Dhoni offering sensible support, India finally chased down the target of 261 late in the evening, under lights, on another overcast day in Bangalore, with Dhoni ending the contest with a four and a six off successive balls. The end was emphatic, but for much of the day, the chase wasn’t.
India’s top four batsmen, all topped 25, but none got to 50, as New Zealand scraped and forced errors. Kohli walked in to bat at 152 for 3, after Sachin Tendulkar was bowled through the gate for the third time in the series, and soon saw India slide to 166 for 5, with only Dhoni and the tail for company.
With the ball bouncing and seaming around a bit, and with Jeetan Patel getting some turn and bounce, India, and Kohli, had much to do. Kohli started slowly, offering the bowlers plenty of respect. His first scoring stroke, though, was an emphatic one – a fluent cover-drive off a Trent Boult half-volley – and when he followed that with an off-drive in the same over, he was on his way.
Between the gorgeous drives, though, was plenty of circumspect batting, as he defended solidly, and left deliveries outside off. After scoring no runs in his first 15 balls, Kohli scored 17 off his next 34. Only after having faced around 50 balls did he show more extravagance, exquisitely whipping one from Patel through wide mid-on, and then creaming three fours off a Southee over – a whip through midwicket, a cover-drive, and a straight-drive. His last 34 came off 33 balls, in what was the definition of a well-paced innings.
Dhoni, on the other hand, was frenetic at the start, scoring 19 off his first 16 balls, including a slog-swept six off Patel. That eased the pressure somewhat, with Ross Taylor perhaps missing a trick by keeping Patel on instead of attacking Dhoni with pace from both ends.
As Kohli upped the tempo, Dhoni eased off, taking singles, rotating the strike, and not striking another boundary till victory was well within reach. The partnership between the two was worth 96, and it was a match-winning one.
The sixth-wicket pair finally won it for India, but for most of the day New Zealand put in a terrific performance in the field: the fast bowlers mixed up their lengths on a responsive pitch, testing all the Indian batsmen with the short stuff, while Patel flighted it, bowled at a slower pace, and flummoxed more than one batsman in a line-up which usually plays spin well.
The only passage when they seemed lost for ideas was when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir were spanking it to all parts during a first-wicket partnership of 77 in less than 12 overs.
However, once they broke through, with Sehwag charging down the pitch and getting deceived by the flight, they fought all the way. Gambhir lost his way after a fluent start, scoring one off his last 20 balls after making 33 off 38 in Sehwag’s company.
Cheteshwar Pujara, who had starred with 72 in India’s win over Australia at the same ground on his debut, had a mixed time here, mixing some pleasant drives with some nervy moments against both spin and pace: his hooking didn’t always inspire confidence, while Patel repeatedly had him playing and missing at straight deliveries. He finally dismissed Pujara off a bat-pad catch for 48 with the score on 158, but would have dismissed him 24 runs earlier, with Pujara on 37, had Brendon McCullum, keeping wicket instead of the injured Kruger van Wyk, not muffed up a simple stumping chance.
India seemed to have taken a stranglehold on the game when Pujara and Tendulkar were involved in a 69-run stand, but New Zealand continued to press hard. The pair had to fight off a tense period before lunch as New Zealand recovered after the opening onslaught: only 17 runs came off the 12 overs after Sehwag’s dismissal. However, both Pujara and Tendulkar were getting into groove, with the batsmen managing forcing shots through the off side to ease the pressure, when a 40-minute rain delay, which forced an early tea, stopped India’s momentum.
Soon after resumption, India slumped from 147 for 2 to 166 for 5. Tendulkar was bowled for the third time in three innings, playing across the line to a full one from Southee that moved in a bit, while Suresh Raina had a brain freeze: not yet off the mark after facing nine balls, he charged wildly at his tenth, tried to blast it over midwicket, missed, and found his middle stump knocked back. It’s a stroke that should give him nightmares, especially if he doesn’t get another opportunity at Test cricket in the near future. In five home Tests against New Zealand, Raina has scored 84 in seven innings at an average of 12.