Trent Boult celebrates bowling Cheteshwar Pujara out for 11. (Source: AP Photo)
By evening on the third day, the Basin Reserve had shed its hue of green, lost the dampness after overnight rain, and resembled a first-evening subcontinental strip. For most the day, it behaved like one too — there was no swing, only fractional seam movement with the new ball. It was time for the Kiwi bowlers to think out of the box.
So it began, with an extended chat between their new-ball exponents Tim Southee and Trent Boult before the fifth over. The ball was doing just enough to trouble the batsmen, but the pair knew it wouldn’t be long before the strip would become a batting beauty. So they changed trajectories, mixed up angles and release points, and shuffled their lengths and lines. As the Indian batsmen left the show one after the other, it was a tribute to the veteran pair's planning, perfection and execution.
Victim A: Prithvi Shaw
If they’d done adequate homework, they would have worked out plans for the aggressive opener. Bowl full outside the off-stump and shape the ball away. His crease-tied feet and hard hands make him vulnerable to the away-goer. So the strategy seemed as Southee hit the length that has troubled him the most. Shaw was beaten on a few instances, to which he responded by shuffling across more to cover the line. Maturity on the feet by the Mumbai opener, who seemed certain that Southee and Bolt were probing relentlessly on his vulnerability outside the off-stump.
Little did he know that he was walking into a trap. Eighth over, Boult decided to come around the wicket, unusual considering his most fiendish delivery is the one that bends back into the right-hander. The around-the-wicket ploy so early in an innings could be misunderstood as a sign of panic.
A short-of-length ball outside the off-stump, first up. Shaw, hanging on the back-foot, comfortably defended. Second ball, short of length again, but a little wider and Shaw deployed his dexterous hand to guide it between slip and gully. A well-controlled shot to the rope.
Prithvi Shaw walks off dejected after losing his wicket (Source: Reuters)
Then came the sucker punch, awkward short ball at his chest. Boult let it rip from the surface, hurling it a touch faster than his previous two balls. Shaw didn't know what to do. He stood unmoved and just tried to ride the bounce by hanging his angular bat away from the body, more as a reflex movement than a sturdy defensive shot, wishing that the edge would somehow elude the fielder. The wish was futile. It was spongy bounce, which on slow surfaces is more dangerous than quick bounce.
Victim B: Cheteshwar Pujara
A difficult batsman to set conventional traps, they beat Pujara at his own game - the patience game. The short-ball plan had him hanging on by the skin of the teeth. Kylie Jamieson thought he had nabbed him, when he had him fending a shoulder-high short ball, which replays showed had brushed his arm guard. Before that, Pujara had gloved a Boult bouncer to the vacant short-leg region.
Usually, an assured defuser of the bouncer, a master at judging the line and weaving away from it, or at times even pulling it, he looked rattled. It was the angle that harried him the most. Pitched on middle stump, angling in and climbing into him. Slightly wider on either stump, he would have harmlessly left it. But here he had to play at every ball. And every ball was coming at a different pace too. Pujara dug a trench and slunk into it, as he often does.
But with Boult and Jamieson left the bowling crease, the Kiwis reworked their plan. Southee and Colin de Grandhomme, not equipped with the pace of Boult or the bounce of Jamieson, settled into a tight back-of-length rhythm, testing his patience. At times, they set curious fields — at one stage there was short cover, short mid-off and a short point, waiting for an uppish drive as the ball often stopped at him. But Pujara blunted them to the point of tedium.
Cheteshwar Pujara out, bowled by New Zealand's Trent Boult for 11 on Day 3 of Wellington Test (Source: AP)
Then came Boult again, for a final burst before tea. First over: four balls around the wicket and two over the stumps. Four of them were back-of-length outside off-stump. Two were fuller. The strategy was clear: Push Pujara back and then make him nibble at the fuller-length deliveries. He couldn’t be lured. A similar pattern played out in the next 12 balls before Boult came around the wicket.
Pujara sensed the strategy — another short-ball jugular — only to be proved fatally wrong. The first four balls were full outside off-stump or thereabouts. Four times, he defended and once he left. Then on the last ball of the session, he had an utter brain-freeze. He left a full-ish delivery, bowled from wider of the crease angling, bending in and distorting his stumps. Pujara's judgement was affected by the unusual angles and the short-bowl barrage.
Victim C: Virat Kohli
The skipper was Boult’s third wicket, but Jamieson deserves partial credit. The lanky seamer, frequently interchanging sides and angles, cannoned short balls at fiddly angles. Most of that Kohli dealt comfortably, getting nicely behind the line, either leaving or defending. Unlike in the first innings, he seemed assured with his footwork. From the other end, Southee kept landing the ball closer to Kohli. It seemed like a first-innings replica, where they kept pounding short of a length, before slipping one fuller.
Then strode in Boult again, the knockout puncher of the team. A full, widish ball had Kohli driving crisply to cover. Then, like a flash of lightning, came the full-pelt bouncer. Short and express quick, as though the ball had explosiveness of its own. Kohli’s instinct was to pull, but he was late on the stroke.
Later, Boult candidly explained the strategy to Kohli: “In terms of Virat, he likes to feel the bat on the ball like a couple of their guys. Definitely, almost we miss (our lengths and lines), he hits, and he hits it well and gets boundaries. From our point of view, we were trying to dry that up and for me personally, using the wicket and the shorter ball was a good plan to try and control his run rate,” he said.
It was 18 deliveries since Kohli had slapped his last four, and incrementally, the pressure was piling on him. He was equally irritated when the bowlers kept changing sides, as he had to retake his guard, get used to the new angle and field setting. All these were gnawing at him, which manifested in an untimely shot.
Virat Kohli sweeps around to be caught off the bowling of Trent Boult for 19 on Day 3 of first Test (Source: AP)
Thus with a ruthlessly calculated bowling effort, the ever-underestimated Kiwi bowlers showed that although the Basin Reserve strip is no longer as green as it used to be, they can still be frightening with a bit of planning, plotting and execution.