Indian cricket seems to be following a script this year. Any batter who has come into the XI looking to cement his place has ensured he is ready to play a crucial role.
Rishabh Pant, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar ruled the first half of the year. On Thursday, Shreyas Iyer got his Test career off to an assured start as he walked off the field unbeaten on 75 off 136 balls, leaving New Zealand in a desperate state at the end of day one with a score 258/4 on the board.
India went in with five specialist batters. Captain Ajinkya Rahane and vice-captain Cheteshwar Pujara have 78 and 90 Tests behind them; Mayank Agarwal, fighting to win his place back, is playing his 15th Test, Gill is playing his 9th Test and Iyer is making his debut.
As it has happened right through the year, Pujara and Rahane left after laboring to get set, leaving the undercooked batters to do the damage control. Gill played the lead in setting the tempo with a 93-ball 52 at the top of the innings before India’s most reliable Test batter of the year, Ravindra Jadeja, took centre stage with Iyer to steer India — then 145/4 — out of choppy waters in the second session.
This is where Iyer and Jadeja injected intent in the innings. Jadeja’s authoritative presence liberated Iyer during their unbeaten partnership of 103 runs which nullified any semblance of threat from the Kiwi spin trio of Ajaz Patel, William Somerville and Rachin Ravindra, and negated the craftsmanship of seamers Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson.
Jadeja ended the day with his signature twirl of the bat upon reaching his 17th Test half-century.
Iyer was out there to counterattack, much like that defining knock of his for Mumbai at the same venue seven years ago when he was on the verge of being dropped from the team.
India’s innings looked bizarre for most part of the first two sessions after Rahane won the toss and elected to bat. The bare Green Park pitch offered turn but no pace. Southee and Jamieson extracted every little bit of movement off the pitch but there was no real carry to unsettle the batters.
Yet, Southee and Jamieson had the Indians in a bind with conventional seam bowling to start with before resorting to reverse swing. Jamieson got Agarwal caught behind with the new ball and came back with the semi-new ball to knock over a set Gill.
Pujara, as it has become a norm for him irrespective of conditions, never looked like taking the game forward in his toil of 26 off 88 balls. Rahane’s nervous energy never left him until dragged a Jamieson short ball on to the stumps while batting on 35.
The pitch provided no pace. Shot-making was never going to be easy. But Gill, Iyer and Jadeja offered the template to bat on this track. The backfoot shots were almost out of the game. But Iyer’s innings showed how to create pace and add momentum to the innings in such conditions.
After all, India got the best conditions to bat. Iyer and Gill have been designated to take the game on. They did that with aplomb. Jadeja walked in like a pro and went about the business with little fuss. The pitch and the bowling were never going to hurry the batters.
It was about not getting stuck at one end. New Zealand had one gameplan — attack the stumps and apply the choke. Iyer and Gill charged down the track with intent to score big. Iyer, in particular, was not going to let the spinners get away with a miserly spell.
Every time they looked like settling down on a length, he skipped down the track and peppered the boundaries in front of the wicket. The two consecutive boundaries off Ravindra in the second session marked his intent. And before New Zealand could know, Iyer and Jadeja had run away with the game.
The left-arm spinners resorted to bowling the outside-leg line to check the rate, yet Iyer ensured they didn’t get away bowling too many of them.