Series win slipping away from Black Caps

TEST TON: Ajinkya Rahane celebrates his century.
TEST TON: Ajinkya Rahane celebrates his century.

So accustomed to leading from the front in home tests this summer, New Zealand can barely make out their opponents in the distance after a sorry Saturday in the Basin Reserve sun.

Reality bit against the world's No 2 test side these past two days after losing a crucial coin toss. Now it's shades of the thoroughbred Kiwi entering the home straight in the 1983 Melbourne Cup; only a remarkable comeback performance will clinch a series win after they arrived 1-0 up and chasing four test victories in a row.

The men in black helmets will resume on 24-1 in their second innings, still trailing by 222 in the second and final test. Opener Peter Fulton, a hugely valued but badly out of form member of this side, probably made the final walk of his 22-test career after padding up to Zaheer Khan, leaving Hamish Rutherford and batting anchor Kane Williamson to roll their sleeves up.

On a now excellent surface with no rain in sight, New Zealand need to bat two days to make it safe, without expectant dad Ross Taylor, their most likely candidate to do so. Against a hungry Indian pace attack that has outbowled New Zealand's in two successive innings now, it should be game over, and series squared.

The spirit of the Martin Crowe-Andrew Jones 467 stand against Sri Lanka at the Basin in 1991, or Mark Greatbatch's test-saving 146 not out in Perth two years earlier, would be a good start. All three strolled the ground at tea and soaked up applause from the 5072-strong crowd in their reunion of the 1992 World Cup squad. Two sons of that side, Rutherford and Tom Latham, can both make their names.

India's 438 was anchored by Ajinkya Rahane's maiden century in his fifth test and some brutal counter-attack from skipper MS Dhoni (68 off 86) as New Zealand's shoulders slumped.

If not for some brilliant catches - notably Trent Boult's diving one-hander to farewell Rahane and Rutherford's sharp grab to remove Virat Kohli - the lead could have been 300-plus.

There were ominous early signs when New Zealand's new ball pair took nine overs to remove nightwatchman Ishant Sharma. Instead of going full and straight they tried to bounce him out and he added a pesky 52 with Shikhar Dhawan.

This was a much inferior New Zealand bowling performance than we saw in Auckland. There might have been five quicks but all-rounders Corey Anderson and Jimmy Neesham took one wicket between them.

It was a far cry from 24 hours earlier when New Zealand's batsmen hopped about then hit out on the tricky green surface. The pitch flattened out fast but it still had pace, and the new ball swung, but there was little concerted pressure or bowling in partnerships as they did in the Eden Park epic.

Boult looked the most likely when he bowled his full inswingers. Tim Southee didn't seem 100 per cent.

Neil Wagner snared the big wicket of Kohli to a well-placed short cover and enveloped his skipper when it looked game on at 228-6. Captain Brendon McCullum shifted his short catchers around like chess pieces and put men out on the fence but the home fielders chased a lot of leather.

Rahane's previous test best was 96 in Durban in December when he was bowled by Vernon Philander. After Dhawan fell two short of a second successive ton, nicked out by Southee, the man who had scored 51 runs from five ODI innings finally clicked with New Zealand pitches.

As Dhoni sprinted, helping Rahane add 120 in 24 overs, India kicked clear. The bowlers leaked a horror 62 runs off the first 10 overs with the second new ball.

Wagner nicked out Zaheer Khan, only to be called for a no ball from television replays. They offered no compelling evidence but somehow third umpire Derek Walker overturned a third wicket in two days, ruling Wagner had cut the return crease with his back foot.

Then Boult pulled off a stunning outfield catch. Running in from deep cover and looking 100-1 to reach it, he stuck out a right hand in a rare moment of jubilation, ending Rahane's 259-minute stay that still drove a dagger through Black Cap hearts.

Sunday Star Times