Tough questions asked, India come up with timely answers

play
Vettori: Axar's pace, consistency and accuracy were brilliant (2:00)

Daniel Vettori breaks down Axar's crucial spell on the third day (2:00)

Far too often, India win far too easily at home these days. Since the last time they lost a series at home, India have lost two of 38 Tests, and drawn five (three of them weather-affected). Of the 31 wins, only one has been by a margin of under 100 runs or six wickets. The two losses have been when they have lost a crucial toss.

However, once in a while, along comes a pitch so slow and low, and along comes a No. 1 team in the world who doesn't make unforced errors. Edges keep falling short, ones that beat them keep missing the stumps, turn keeps getting slower and slower, and we have a proper challenge.

When the third day started, India knew they were in for a hard day's work. They had bowled 57 overs on this pitch for no wicket even though they had produced 56 false responses from the batters. As a comparison, India were bowled out in 96 mistakes. It points to some good fortune for the New Zealand openers, but also to how slow and low the pitch had become. You could beat them with sideways turn, which kept increasing, but taking wickets was going to be hard work.

In other words, this was not a pitch or an opposition that you could run through with two good bowlers. In three days, there has hardly been a single opportunity at bat-pad. Gully has been kneeling on the floor. Each of the bowlers had to do a job here, and they did.

He might have got just three wickets, but R Ashwin was masterful in his 11-over spell in the morning. Axar Patel, who ran away with a five-for, his fifth in just four Tests, was asked what advice he would give his batters on day four given the conditions. He said there wasn't much to worry with the pitch; only if the spinners are patient can they trouble batters.

Ashwin hates the word patience. At least in the traditional parlance, which is to say keep trying your stock ball, experiment less, and the results will come. He was anything but patient. He poured out a career worth of tricks in a spell. He changed the angles of the seam, he changed the angles on the crease, he changed the points of release, he changed the pace. He bowled the carrom ball, he bowled the arm ball, he bowled a legspinner's topspinner, and he bowled a lot of offbreaks.

At one point, Ashwin caused a pause in play because the umpire was so flummoxed by the angle of his run-up, which was perfectly legal but is so rarely used it is hard to remember anyone doing it. He ran in from the umpire's right, got extremely close to him, the closest you can without whacking him, released the ball from practically in front of the umpire, and kept running along the diagonal. While doing this, he made sure he was not close to the danger area.

Even while he did all this, Ashwin had the ball on a string. It dipped and drifted beautifully, giving the batters hardly any easy boundary, if at all. On a pitch that other bowlers have drawn a false shot once every seven balls, Ashwin did so once every five balls. This was one of the great spells of spin bowling just for the sheer number of times he beat batters in the air on a pitch that had not yet begun to help the spinners.

Tom Latham is an expert batter, tight in defence but severe on anything loose. He batted close to seven hours for just 95 runs not because he was overly defensive, but because he was not given anything to score off. Batting often gets easier the more time you spend on the wicket, but it kept getting difficult the more Latham faced Ashwin.

And it wasn't just Ashwin. It can't be on such pitches. Ishant Sharma put in a spell of 6-2-20-0 in the morning before other spinners took over. Umesh Yadav then produced his usual brute out of nowhere to take out another big batter Kane Williamson.

When so much pressure has been built, it is imperative the change-up bowlers don't release it. Forget releasing the pressure, India's change-up bowlers on this day are experts of exploiting it. The harder newer ball drew quicker response from the pitch, and Axar and Ravindra Jadeja started targeting the stumps.

Axar had the better day of the two. Interestingly, he said the wider he went on the crease and the lower he went on the release, the more assistance he got from the pitch. So he just kept mixing up high-release straighter deliveries with roundarm turning ones. The accuracy was unerring. He was lethal once it started misbehaving.

The endeavour of Test batting, especially away from home, is to see off the main threats and then cash in on either tired or lesser bowlers. There was no lesser bowler. In the pleasant temperatures of Kanpur, which ironically means the cracks didn't quite open up sooner, there was no question these bowlers were tiring.

It took India 67 mistakes to get their first wicket, the most it has taken for an opening wicket to fall in India since ESPNcricinfo started keeping control stats. It took India 133 mistakes in all to bowl New Zealand out. But they kept at it, creating mistake after mistake, bowling good ball after good ball.

It will take more of the same in the second innings - although it is getting progressively difficult to bat on - but if India can manage to pull off a win here, New Zealand's innings of 142.5 overs will be the fifth-longest first innings by a visiting team in a lost Test in India. This win will not have come easy.