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Nathan Astle leads fightback

Ahmedabad: This series was billed as a ‘revenge’ for the Indians after the humiliation they had suffered in New Zealand earlier this year. Instead of dust-bowls, of which the visitors were afraid, long before they had landed here, what has been laid out are slow and low wickets.

Hence the turn is never lethal and the bounce fairly even on the Motera surface, and the batsman’s task has become easier. The Indians had voiced their concern before the start of the first Test and their worst fears have started to come true.

With Shane Bond and Chris Cairns unavailable, it was assumed that the hosts would enjoy a cakewalk. The first two days of the Videocon series went the Indians’ way but on Friday the Black Caps managed to scratch around to be only 19 runs in arrears of avoiding the follow-on.

As Nathan Astle showed during his ninth hundred, loads of patience and application will be the key to survival on these tracks. No undue risks would be taken was the mantra during his 206-ball stay at the crease.

That New Zealand lost eight wickets have been mainly due to the guile of the bowlers. Harbhajan Singh’s variation and Zaheer Khan’s pace proved absolutely fatal.

New Zealand know that a draw here would suffice. They are hoping that the conditions will be evenly-placed for both sides on the hard and bouncy Mohali pitch. In case Stephen Fleming’s men manage to share the honours in the two Tests, moral victory will rest with them.

The Indians are not taking any chances and are likely to enforce the follow-on even if it means a hard work for the bowlers in the hot and humid atmosphere. If New Zealand manage to cross the 301-run mark, then a lead of around 350 will be considered sufficient.

“Hopefully the wicket will turn and we can get them within one-and-a-half days,” Sourav Ganguly said later.

It was a hard grind for India after the early inroads made last evening. Astle (103) held the innings together with partnerships of 91 for the fourth and fifth wickets with Scott Styris and Craig McMillan, respectively.

Astle, who was out for almost six months and had missed the World Cup because of a knee surgery, showed immense concentration and determination in battling the Indian spinners. His running between the wickets was superb and he blunted the attack with a straight bat.

Impetuosity, his bane in the past, has now given way to prudence. He often played against the spin and cut the spinners with aplomb. Having survived a caught behind attempt on 93, he, uncharacteristically, stepped down the wicket and paid the price.

His stand with McMillan (54) threatened to take the match out of India’s hands. The latter’s adventurous approach often left Sourav clueless and he had to fall back on Virender Sehwag’s off spin to achieve the breakthrough. Akash Chopra, who dropped a couple of chances in the opening session, snapped up an excellent low catch.

Chopra, however, showed lot of promise of developing into a superb close-in fielder. His crouching and technique at forward short leg, coupled with the ability to follow the ball till the last minute was exemplary.

Anil Kumble, who was far from impressive, picked up his 350th wicket when he ended Jacob Oram’s misery against the spinners. Rahul Dravid took a simple catch at first slip. Kumble is the 14th overall and second Indian to achieve the feat.

Lakshmipathy Balaji also claimed his maiden wicket in the final session with the second new ball. The pacer hardly appeared to be threatening except for a brief period in the afternoon session.

India certainly missed a fifth bowler, specially during the Astle-McMillan partnership, though, Sehwag did come up with a pretty good performance. Sanjay Bangar could have come in handy in such circumstances.

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