India v New Zealand, 1st Test: New Zealand spinners not an embarrassment

From a distance, the battle between New Zealand spinners and Indian batters appears one between David and Goliath. The first dayโ€™s play here certainly gave credence to such an analogy as Ajaz Patel and Will Somerville most bore the brunt of the battersโ€™ bellicosity. Both went wicketless and Ajaz was expensive as well, going for 3.71 an over.

With a total experience of 13 Tests between them, Ajaz and Somerville appear to be rookies ready to be baptised by the master batters of India. Colossus though the gulf may be between them and the batters, it wasnโ€™t so much their lack of expertise in their art that gave India the upper hand; rather, the pitch was slow and true for the most part, and so unresponsive to their bowling that a negative line had to be adopted towards the end of the dayโ€™s play to minimise the damage.

There was variable bounce on offer, as evidenced by the delivery from Kyle Jamieson that dismissed Ajinkya Rahane. But somehow, wickets eluded the spinners.

Ajaz was perhaps the more risk-savvy of the two main spinners, repeatedly flighting the ball, varying his pace, and tossing in the arm ball now and then. He would have got Shubman Gill out in his first over itself: Gill came forward to smother the good length delivery and an lbw referral would have sent him packing. Indeed, it wasnโ€™t until his sixth over that Indiaโ€™s batters felt free to take chances off his bowling.

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Gill was the first to do so, stepping down the track nicely and hitting the ball straight towards the sight screen for a six. Gill stepped out again later and hit an inside-out stroke for a boundary through mid-off. Then Shreyas Iyer took over in the evening to cut, pull and loft his deliveries.

Somerville, on the other hand, was hit for just three fours in his spell. Perhaps his tall frame made the batters more circumspect, and despite the uni-dimensional nature of his bowling, they were just happy to knock him around for singles. Shreyas slogged him in the last over of the day when the ball sat up to be smoked.

Seamer Jamieson, after the end of first dayโ€™s play, pointed to the fact that they didnโ€™t have so much assistance from the first-day pitch. โ€œThere didnโ€™t seem to be a whole lot of assistance for them. Didnโ€™t see a whole lot of balls spin big or go low,โ€ he said.

So the spinners perhaps didnโ€™t let their team down, but where New Zealand did miss a trick is by not picking Mitchell Santner as its third spinner. Santner has played Tests in India before, and he would have been of the same variety as Rachin Ravindra who is playing his first Test. Did the Kiwi setup not have faith its top order to have to exclude an experienced spinner to shore up its batting?

As for the choice of the pair of Ajaz and Somerville, it would have been based on their tour of the UAE in 2018-19 when their combined effort in the second Test helped New Zealand won an away Test series series against Pakistan for the first time in 49 years. Ajaz was certainly a handful on the fifth day track in Abu Dhabi in the first Test, his spell of 5 for 59 taking his side to a thrilling four-run win.

There is no reason he has to flop on this tour, although it will be the most severe challenge of his career yet.

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