29 December 2020 00:49
Most of the players in this India Test XI left home mid-August at the height of the pandemic when we knew very little of the virus. As the cricket began, life must have become a little easier, but only one of the IPL teams, the Royal Challengers Bangalore, travelled with a mental-health expert. To be confined to your rooms during such times of fear and uncertainty takes a toll on any normal person, and these are athletes used to playing outdoor sport and going out when they are in a new country. Some of the other touring teams - Pakistan and West Indies in New Zealand at least - have committed some breach of the protocol or the other, but not India. Players world over have spoken of the toll being in these bubbles has taken on their mental health, but this team has shown none of the entitlement elite athletes used to getting things done for them can show.
India are not too far from victory in the Boxing Day Test Getty Images It is not easy to play elite cricket in such times when sometimes you are playing for your place in the side, on other times you are being trolled if you go online - which you tend to do more when trapped indoors - and are worried about families and friends back home rest of the time. Add to it the three missing first-choice players - Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami - for the Boxing Day Test after you have just been bowled out for 36. It takes a lot of mental strength and wisdom and trust in own skills to come back from such a result - imagine how much one must rue coming within striking distance of beating Australia in a day-night Test at your first attempt - and the team management needs to be complimented and congratulated for not only keeping the team going mentally but also making smart cricketing choices. Accepting that a wicketkeeper's runs matter more than his keeping was a start, but replacing your best batsman with a bowling allrounder in the aftermath of 36 all out takes serious guts. It makes all the cricketing sense - you need to strengthen the bowling because you are missing two champion bowlers and also need to bolster the batting by playing the allrounder and batsman-wicketkeeper in place of a wicketkeeper-batsman - but not everybody has the conviction to do it in the face of criticism India's batting got in Adelaide.
That if they managed to do that, it would once again be down to their batsmen to back themselves and get back into the position they once were in Adelaide before Ajinkya Rahane, captain for the rest of the series, ran out Kohli, India's regular captain who would travel back for the birth of his child. It is a plan devised by the bowlers and the bowling coach with the faith of both captains and coach, and has strangled the Australia batsmen. A plan is only as good as its execution, and they have had it made difficult for them with a further loss of a bowler mid-Test, Umesh Yadav this time with a calf injury. The captain has trusted them all with their plans, and also his own batting to take up the No. 4 position and score a century against an attack for all times. To follow Pune 2016-17, where they were outspun on a home Bunsen, and Lord's 2018, where they were bowled out for 107 and 130, with wins have shown the reserve of skills and physical and mental fitness of this team. If you're in Pakistan and found yourself needing something to keep you going before the third day of the Test started at 3am local time, you might have tuned in to the late-night English Premier League game. For one, Kane Williamson's side was sharp enough to immediately pounce the moment a Pakistan bowler missed their mark; Naseem Shah's first three overs, delivered after a masterfully disciplined spell from Shaheen Afridi and Abbas, went for 21 runs as Williamson and Ross Taylor realised they had found an outlet to relieve the pressure. Watch cricket on ESPN+ New Zealand vs Pakistan is available in the US on ESPN+. The first three of those each have more wickets than Pakistan's entire pace contingent currently in New Zealand. New Zealand couldn't burst through the batsmen in quick succession, wickets didn't fall in clusters. Every batsman got their eye in, all of them managed starts. These, however, are world-class bowlers, an adjective that can't quite be used to describe most of the batsmen they were bowling to. With Pakistan content to survive with disregard for a scoreboard that simply wasn't ticking over, New Zealand were equally content to hold their lines and wait for the concentration lapses. Jamieson conceded four runs across the first two sessions in the eleven overs he bowled. He still picked up two wickets; simply shutting up shop doesn't guarantee you'll keep this New Zealand attack out. His spell was emblematic of a New Zealand side on cruise control, while Pakistan might have been chugging along in first gear in a bad neighbourhood. Pakistan brought up the hundred in the 66th over; this is the slowest a side has reached that milestone in New Zealand since ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data has records for. Mohammad Rizwan picked Pakistan's run rate along with Faheem Ashraf AFP via Getty Images Pakistan's head coach Misbah-ul-Haq is about as famous for positive cricket as comic book fans are for weightlifting. If a side grinds out wins but away from home, Pakistan have not won a Test match since Misbah took over, and on the evidence of today's performance with the bat, it doesn't exactly appear as if there's an abundance of ideas on how to turn that around. This will be the tenth successive away Test without a victory; the last time Pakistan suffered a drier run on the road came in the 1980s. When Fawad Alam, who had scratched together nine runs in 41 deliveries at the crease, lost his patience and hoicked at one down the leg side that he legitimately should have left alone, Faheem Ashraf strode out to the middle. Pakistan had managed just four boundaries all day until then, and Ashraf felt there was little point to staying out there if he wasn't going to get a move on. Soon after, he hit Jamieson, who had gone for nine in 17 overs, for eight runs in two balls. The New Zealand quick realised he'd have to change things up, and he fed Mohammad Rizwan one that was short and wide. Two balls later, Jamieson's frustrations got the better of him, and he collected a drive back from Ashraf and hurled it back at the batsman. Pakistan doubled their 60-over score in 20 overs, and Rizwan and Ashraf both brought up half-centuries. It might be tempting to let the sugar rush of that seventh-wicket partnership overwhelm Pakistan supporters into believing their plan for the day held some sort of merit. Pakistan might lose this match because of the way they approached it, but lose it slightly less comprehensively because Ashraf and Rizwan recognised that dated, conservative strategy for the trap that it was, and discarded it summarily with the contempt it deserved.