| Skippers Stephen Fleming and Rahul Dravid with the series trophy they shared in Mohali on Monday
Chandigarh: Despite a 24-carat effort, Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman couldn’t help Team India avoid the follow-on. Yet, he played another golden hand to save the Mohali Test and series. But for his unbeaten 104 and 67, which fetched the Man of the Series award, Stephen Fleming would have created history: Becoming the first New Zealand captain to win a series in India.
Fleming’s dream came close to realisation soon after lunch on Monday (the fifth day), when Sachin Tendulkar fell for one more low score — his third of the two-Test Videocon series — and India, 206 behind, slumped to 18 for three. At that point, 62-plus overs remained and, frankly, the worst could have happened. The damage, by the way, was MoM Darryl Tuffey-authored.
But, taking guard for the second time in the day, Laxman continued with the commitment shown in the first innings. Moreover, with opener Akash Chopra too doing a repeat, India managed to keep honour intact. “Yes, I’m relieved,” stand-in captain Rahul Dravid told The Telegraph.
He must have been on tenterhooks ever since the visitors amassed a record 630 for six declared.
Clearly, the confidence gained at the PCA Stadium, by New Zealand, is bound to be carried forward to the soon-to-begin tri-series. Now, Fleming’s men may well be a little arrogant.
Akash, of course, got out just before the 15 mandatory overs (in the last hour) got underway but, by then, much lost ground had been retrieved. Eventually, Fleming accepted the reality after the ninth such over. “We pressed very hard and, so, are disappointed... However, every tour to the sub-continent is part of our education to become competitive worldwide... We have learnt lessons,” he said.
Tuffey, for his part, maintained that the team’s hopes did “pick up” when Akash got out, but Laxman was simply unbeatable. “We did regain that self-belief, but Laxman...” he rued.
India finished on 136 for four, with Laxman on 67 (204 minutes, 163 balls, 8x4) and Yuvraj Singh on five. Akash, who scored 60 in the first innings, posted 52 (228 minutes, 160 deliveries, 8x4). Virender Sehwag (the day marked his 25th birthday), Dravid and Sachin — described as a “volcano waiting to explode” by Tuffey — contributed a mere seven between themselves.
For New Zealand, Tuffey returned the best figures in both innings. In fact, he was on a split hattrick when innings No.1 ended and must receive all the credit for enlivening the final day. That he also scripted a fabulous (back-handed flicked) run out, to send back Anil Kumble in the morning, helped the MoM adjudicator, Match Referee Ranjan Madugalle, decide in his favour.
With the Test producing six centurions, few will argue over the award going to a medium-pacer who kept a tormenting line and made the most of movement off the seam.
Talking exclusively, Tuffey acknowledged being “inspired” by the arrival of girl friend Shanna. She flew in on the eve of this deciding Test and will be around for a “couple of ODIs” as well.
Incidentally, like Fleming, Dravid expressed disappointment. “Given that we set out to win the series, the result is definitely disappointing... We didn’t have a great first two days but, thereafter, our players showed a lot of character... Indeed, I would have backed myself had I won the toss and the team totalled over 600. A decisive result was possible,” he remarked.
A lot of ifs and buts there, though. But, yes, Dravid had a point when he spoke of a three-match series. Well, the sooner the ICC bans this two-match farce, the better.
While admitting his ‘baptism’ was tough, over all five days, Dravid lauded Laxman and Akash. “Laxman got his runs when the wicket offered most to the bowlers, particularly spinners... Under pressure, he came up with two great innings... Akash has had a great start to his career and, hopefully, he is the solution we have been looking for...”
Akash, who made his debut in Motera, totalled 185 in the two Tests. It will be shocking if he isn’t retained in the Test squad for the forthcoming tour of Australia.
Day V began with India requiring 41 to save the embarrassment of following-on and, for a while, it was tough determining who was more intent on making it difficult for his team: Kumble and Harbhajan Singh ran themselves out, much to everybody’s horror; gloveman Robert Hart dropped No.10 Lakshmipathy Balaji twice, even as Fleming moved towards becoming only the second New Zealand captain (after John Reid) to ask India to follow-on in their own backyard.
However, bowling with the second new ball (taken at 405 for seven), Tuffey fired out Balaji and Zaheer Khan off successive balls to open the possibility of a decisive result. Asked whether, having done so much (in two spells), he was awfully disappointed, Tuffey replied: “The disappointment is there... Only, drawing the series was a fall-back option and, at the end of the day, I’m not unhappy...”
Understandably, the visitors alone made a dash to collect the stumps (barring the middle ones) as a memorable souvenir. It’s not often that a visiting team outplays the home side in these parts.
New Zealand, then, have much to show from this series. As for Team India, which never quite recovered from the loss of regular captain Sourav Ganguly (before the second Test), the only plus has been Akash’s ‘discovery’ and Laxman’s form. The latter had 64 and 44 in Motera.