| Sourav Ganguly’s expression sums up the mood in the Indian camp in Ahmedabad on Sunday. (AFP)
Ahmedabad: In the end, the Indians’ worst fears came true. They had not bargained for a stalemate in the season-opener but New Zealand were determined that their extensive preparations for this tour did not go waste.
It was so near and yet so far for the hosts. A matter of one wicket which Sourav Ganguly and Co. hoped would have opened the floodgates. But Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle ensured that the visitors went into the second Test with nobody leading in the Videocon series.
It also meant Sourav will have to wait to equal Mohammed Azharuddin’s record 14 Test victories. The flurry of wickets in the morning and afternoon sessions meant little as the vital breakthrough was never accomplished.
The pitch did not show signs of much wear and tear on the final day. The odd ball did keep low or bounce awkwardly, but that was not enough to deny New Zealand a moral victory. The ability to stay put paid rich dividends as McMillan and Astle showed during their unbroken 103-run partnership for the seventh wicket. Their existence almost meant life and death for the side and they battled on gallantly for 234 deliveries.
It was a partnership of immense concentration, application and determination, and there was little the bowlers could do to exploit the benign conditions.
Up against a record ask and needing 322 on the final day, the Black Caps lost Daryl Tuffey, Stephen Fleming and Scott Styris in the pre-lunch session. Lou Vincent and Jacob Oram followed soon after, and they were reduced to 169 for six. Then Astle joined forces with McMillan.
Playing strokes was never difficult for McMillan on this slow track. An insulin-dependent diabetic since he was 16 — a condition which has affected his eyesight — he was recalled to the side for his ability to attack the spinners. The circumstances did not force him to be unusually restrained and he tackled the spinners with assurance. His methods were sometimes unconventional, but useful nevertheless.
His unbeaten 83 must have been enough to prove his critics back home wrong. His highest Test score in eight Test innings before this game was only 18.
Astle, who was indisposed, came down the order but did not show any sign of discomfiture. He had led the way in the first innings with a century with good support from McMillan, but this time the roles were reversed.
Kumble once again showed why he is so highly regarded under Indian conditions. Bowling into the pavilion end, he used all his experience to exploit the footmarks. Introduced after the 13th over of the day, the leg spinner struck with the very first ball that kept low and hurried through the defences of nightwatchman Tuffey, taking him by surprise.
His four for 95 should put the Doubting Thomases to rest. He was also seemed well-versed in gamesmanship as he set about disturbing Fleming’s concentration. A plan which paid off.
Harbhajan Singh was also equally menacing. The two bowled 77 overs between them and the first session was fascinating as Vincent and McMillan struggled against their variation.
Vincent stuck to his job with a careful and resolute approach. His 67 will give him the confidence for the remainder of the tour.
“In the morning it was a pretty tough situation. India bowled 18 overs at us last night and went all out to get a few wickets. It was important for somebody to hang in there and see the shine off the ball,” said Vincent.
“If we’d had a good couple of sessions, we could have set up a good chase in the final hour or so, but things didn’t turn out that way. As you probably have seen, I was gutted to get out. I was disappointed to miss out on a century,” he said.
But all that disenchantment faded as they showed the guts to split the honours. “We’re just happy to get through this little battle. We lost only five wickets in the final day to two world-class spinners, so we’re pretty happy about that,” Vincent summed up the mood in the New Zealand camp.
The smile on Fleming’s face was evident as India did not manage to take ‘revenge’ for the humiliation inflicted in January. At least, for the time being.