Laxman and Bhajji hold the fort: First Test against Kiwis peters to a draw

New Zealand's captain Daniel Vettori plays a shot as India's captain and wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni (R) watches during the fourth day of their first test cricket match in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad November 7, 2010. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA - Tags: SPORT CRICKET IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The first Test match between the Black Caps and India petered out to a tame draw.The great escape was engineered by two intrepid saviours,VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh.

The New Zealanders would surely have hoped to end the Indian innings early this morning but much as Vettori and Martin tried, the experienced duo of Laxman and Harbhajan would not let anything get past them.

The Black Caps, however, let a couple of half-chances go a-begging.

Once the first session was seen through without further loss of wickets, it was a matter for conjecture if Dhoni’s men would choose to continue batting or declare early to try and force a win.The Indian think-tank decided against an early declaration; discretion is the better part of valour.

Laxman and Harbhajan rode into the 90’s in contrasting styles; Laxman —calm and self-assured— radiating confidence and Harbhajan treating his time in the middle as a lark in the park ,with mighty swipes at the spinners.

Both batters looked good for tons but Laxman was undone by a terrible decision by umpire Davis given out leg before off an inside edge. Zaheer followed him back to the pavilion — out off the next ball — and the Kiwi captain was on a hat-trick that was not to be.

Harbhajan duly completed his maiden hundred; his team-mate Tendulkar was all smiles in the dressing room. India finally closed out their innings at 266 setting the Black Caps a stiff target of 295. The rest of the proceedings were a mere formality. The Kiwis played out 10 overs scoring 22 for the loss of their opener McIntosh. The rare sight of Dhoni turning his hand over is something the watching crowd will remember.

The Turbanator was duly named the man of the match for his first innings 69 and his match-saving 110. Both, incidentally, are his highest scores in Test cricket.

India have made a habit of riding out these pressure situations well in the recent past. Very Very Special Laxman had a hand to play in three adventures: The Lankans in Lanka, The Kangaroos in India and now The Kiwis here.

The match throws up a few questions about the current squad.

Does Gambhir deserve a spot in the eleven? He looks woefully out of form. The selectors are on the horns of a dilemma. Do they continue with the Delhi opener and hope he hits form? Or do they select Murali Vijay who has done enough in the recent past to suggest that he merits a better deal? If Gambhir fails, it is unlikely that he will make the trip to South Africa. Would it be fair to the Tamil Nadu cricketer to be pitch-forked into  a red-hot  series against the Proteas on home turf?

Dravid with his well-made knock in the first innings silenced the multitude of baying critics for now. Can he continue in this vein of form? Cheteshwar Pujara is knocking at the door and the bangs are increasingly insistent.

Sreesanth looks good in patches. Will the return of Nehra add venom to the bowling attack?

Nehra has made himself available for the Test series in South Africa. He had a fabulous run at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa when he propelled India to the final. An attack comprising Zaheer, Nehra and Ishant Sharma would make for a dream team. Add Munaf Patel and Sreesanth as back-ups and there is more than a little bite in the pace force.

The UDRS debate will have be reopened once more. The Indian team have only themselves to blame if they continue to forego technology and exercise their choice against the review system.

Though India have conjured up three escapes in recent times on sub-continental pitches, they have to ask themselves how long their luck can hold. South African pitches are bouncier and our batsmen will struggle to come to terms with the juicier turfs. Suresh Raina’s weakness against the rising ball is well-known; his temperament is exemplary but that alone will not compensate for bad or no technique. Can he perform a minor miracle of his own?

Tendulkar fans will be disappointed that the Master batsman could not complete his 50th ton.  But there’s yet two Tests to go and history is very much in the making!

I’ll end this post with Harbhajan’s post-match interview:

"Never dreamt I would be MoM for batting, not in Tests, maybe in the one-dayers. Fantastic to get my hundred. A big thanks to Laxman, without whom I would not have scored this. And also a big thanks to Sachin, Viru, and everyone who wanted me to score a century. Today I didn’t disappoint them. Laxman was tapping my shoulder after every over, it was great to have him there. Because of him only, I got those runs. I couldn’t celebrate much because I was too tired. My hands are a little sore because I have never batted that long. More than the hundred, I was happy we saved the game. Yesterday it seemed we were out of the game."

Yes, this Indian team has some fighting qualities ; some stirring fight backs have been wrought by this doughty cricketer, Bhajji.

Hats off to the Turbanator! Next stop, Hyderabad!

Quote of the day:
The trouble with being punctual is that nobody’s there to appreciate it. – Franklin P. Jones