India quicks take time to find their feet, as New Zealand threaten to run away

One wicket. That is what Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami managed across nearly two sessions on Sunday afternoon on a hard, fast pitch in seaming conditions. It is easy to judge that as a failure when measured against New Zealand's inspired bowling performance in the morning, when India's middle order lost the plot, as well as seven wickets for just 71 runs.

But that would be overly critical of the Indian fast men. The combination of grey, cloudy, overcast weather along with the Dukes balls is a delight to fast bowlers who can impart swing and seam. If done wisely, as Kyle Jamieson displayed in the morning, it can be destructive. Yet, as enticing as the English conditions can be, the bowler still has to pitch the ball on the right length and make the batter play.

And finding that length is anything but easy. Even the New Zealand fast pack found it hard on Saturday, despite having the best bowling conditions so far in the match on a fresh pitch with a lot of moisture. While credit has to go to the India top order, which showed application and determination, the New Zealand fast bowlers, especially Tim Southee and Trent Boult, were inconsistent. But on the second morning, Jamieson found the appropriate length, blended with movement and accuracy, to snatch control of the match from India.

Having watched the New Zealand bowlers correct their mistakes and their lengths, India would have been confident that their experienced seamers would get settled in quickly on their first day at the job. Yet New Zealand's batters had a few things in their favour. Firstly, the Ageas Bowl was glowing in sunshine, a spell that had started in the hour before lunch when the India lower order was at the crease. Secondly, both Tom Latham and especially Devon Conway had struck form during the two-Test England series, which took place in the build-up to the World Test Championship final. So both the openers were acclimatised to the conditions.

In contrast, Ishant, Bumrah and Shami were bowling in England for the first time in Test cricket since the 2018 tour. All three were successful on that tour, but now they had to re-start. Ishant and Bumrah, sharing the new ball, were pitching on lengths that the New Zealand openers found easy to leave and negotiate.

As per the ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Latham and Conway's in-control percentages were 90.32% and 80% respectively in the first spells by Ishant and Bumrah. Although they had made just 17 runs after nine overs, when Bumrah was replaced by Shami, New Zealand's openers looked composed and set for a long stay. Both Conway and Latham were happy to leave as many balls when they could.

The India fans were growing restless. Their spirits were lifted somewhat by an energetic first spell by Shami, who delivered with that upright seam at high speeds and caused some distress to the batters. Still both Conway and Latham's combined in-control percentage in Shami's first spell, lasting six overs, was nearly 70%. But the absence of wickets in a match influenced heavily by fraught weather, left some tough questions for the Indian camp if they wanted to get a positive result.

One reason they did not show any desperation was was because they had kept a tight leash on the run rate, which has remained around two and over throughout this match. Such a low scoring rate would have grated with the pundits and fans usually. But the WTC final has been an engrossing duel where the balance has shifted between both teams.

After Latham fell to R Ashwin, Ishant and Bumrah returned with renewed vigour and more blunt plans that put pressure on Conway and Kane Williamson, who were made to play the ball instead of leaving. Bumrah went over the wicket to attack Conway with an angle that the batter found difficult to deal with and couple of times found himself in an awkward position playing balls coming on to his legs. Against Williamson, Bumrah was in the middle of setting up a plan as he asked difficult questions by shaping the ball away with the intention of bringing it back in.

Ishant, too, had found a length where he could both shape the ball away or in to the batter, who could no more refuse to play the ball. With pressure being built from both ends, Conway failed the test, playing a fateful stroke off Ishant minutes before day ended.

The India bowlers, as well as their think tank, would agree Sunday was all hard grind. And it will not be a one-off. There will be similar days during the rest of this long English summer, featuring a five-Test series against the home nation, and when the India fast-bowling pack will doubtless be challenged in tougher conditions.