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Harbhajan, Laxman scuttle Kiwi designs

S. Dinakar

The off-spinner named ‘Man-of-the-Match' for his resilient maiden Test century

— Photo: K.R. DEEPAK

CRY OF JOY:Harbhajan Singh emerged as India's batting hero as he scored a gritty century under the guidance of V.V.S. Laxman.

Ahmedabad: Yet another Indian comeback unfolded at the Sardar Patel Stadium here on Monday. The World No. 1 is putting a price on its tag.

A steely V.V.S. Laxman, at the heart of yet another turnaround, and a spunky Harbhajan Singh rescued India from a possible defeat on the final day of the first Test.

Laxman's well-constructed 91, a maiden Test century by Harbhajan (115) and the 163-run partnership off 328 balls between the two for the seventh wicket ensured India a draw. The determined duo had joined forces when the side was tottering at 65 for six.

Enormous pressure

The surface held firm but there was enormous pressure, particularly in the first session, on India. The host held its nerve.

Considering India was in a hole at 15 for five in its second innings on Sunday, a total of 266 underlined a spectacular recovery.

Not familiar with winning, this New Zealand side failed to press home its advantage. The underdog, however, deserves credit for stretching India.

Laxman unlucky

Laxman was desperately unlucky to miss a hundred. He received a huge inside nick while negotiating an arm ball from Daniel Vettori but, to his horror, saw umpire Steve Davis's finger go up.

Zaheer Khan too succumbed to a dubious leg-before decision from umpire Davis but Harbhajan duly embraced a memorable Test hundred with an audacious on-the-walk inside-out six over covers off Vettori. Much like the stroke, Harbhajan's vibrant celebration reflected his personality.

Yet, the innings was not about brave shot-making alone. Harbhajan applied himself when things could have so easily gone wrong for India.

Of course, there were occasions when a couple of edges fell just short of slips but Harbhajan remained unfazed. He had the rub of the green on 93 when paceman Chris Martin failed to hold a tough return catch.

His bowling form might have dipped but Harbhajan walked away with the Man-of-the-Match award for his innings of 69 and 115 in the Test.

Astute guidance

Between periods of relative calm, he swept and reverse swept, cut with panache, essayed lofted blows on the leg-side and even walked down the track to thump Martin over his head. He was guided astutely by Laxman.

The gifted Laxman's soft hands and exquisite touch are backed by rare resolve and commitment. He shows great equanimity under pressure, is hard to break. Crucially, he comprehends the flow of the game.

Thrice in his last three Tests — at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium in Colombo during a fifth-day chase, against Australia at Mohali in a gut-wrenching humdinger and here — Laxman has either donned the cloak of a match-winner or a saviour.

The elegant right-hander's versatility made him a formidable adversary in crunch times. He breathed over the ball, played the waiting game to frustrate the Kiwis. Yet, Laxman seldom got bogged down.

He coaxed the ball into the empty spaces or took the pace off the sphere for singles. Laxman also pierced the field with drives and flicks off either foot, took the aerial route or disrupted the line with telling sweeps. A majestic cover-drive off Vettori showcased his ability.

Few batsmen bat better with the tail in present-day cricket. Laxman can, depending on the situation, farm the strike or show immense trust in his partner.

And he is always willing to impart words of caution and advice to the man at the other end.

Time and again over the last two seasons, India has displayed the resilience to claw its way back from adverse situations. The side has consistently bucked the odds, found escape routes.

Consequently, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his men have grown in belief. Situations are throwing up heroes.

Defensive tactics

While credit is due to Laxman and Harbhajan, New Zealand's tactics were rather defensive. After the initial phase, Vettori removed the short-leg and the silly point for Laxman allowing the batsman to comfortably get on to the front foot.

The field was rather spread out for Harbhajan as well. The Kiwis lacked aggression even as they stared at a famous victory.

The side sorely missed a fourth specialist bowler — injured paceman Hamish Bennett did not take the field on the last day either.

Tiring as the day progressed, Martin's threatening off-stump line suffered.

Vettori was unable to extract biting turn. Jeetan Patel got the ball to spin more but did not bowl in the right areas.

In fact, New Zealand's best chance appeared and disappeared in a flash. Vettori failed to hit the stumps when Harbhajan, on 12, was well short of the crease at the non-striker's end.

Stirring sporting tales often hang on slender threads.

India — 1st innings: 487.

New Zealand — 1st innings: 459.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir c Hopkins b Martin 0 ( 3b), V. Sehwag (run out) 1 ( 1b), R. Dravid c Hopkins b Martin 1 ( 16b), S. Tendulkar b Martin 12 ( 25b, 2x4), V.V.S. Laxman lbw b Vettori 91 ( 253b, 9x4), S. Raina c Taylor b Martin 0 ( 4b), M.S. Dhoni b Martin 22 ( 72b, 1x4), Harbhajan c Watling b Taylor 115 ( 193b, 11x4, 3x6), Zaheer lbw b Vettori 0 ( 1b), P. Ojha (not out) 9 ( 37b, 1x4), S. Sreesanth c Hopkins b Taylor 4 ( 11b, 1x4); Extras (b-10, nb-1): 11; Total (in 102.4 overs): 266.

Fall of wickets: 1-0 (Gambhir), 2-1 (Sehwag), 3-2 (Dravid), 4-15 (Tendulkar), 5-15 (Raina), 6-65 (Dhoni), 7-228 (Laxman), 8-228 (Zaheer), 9-260 (Harbhajan).

New Zealand bowling: Martin 27-8-63-5, Vettori 38-8-81-2, Patel 23-1-72-0, Williamson 4-0-18-0, Taylor 4.4-2-4-2, McCullum 6-1-18-0.

New Zealand — 2nd innings: T. McIntosh lbw b Zaheer 0 ( 6b), B. McCullum (not out) 11 ( 28b, 2x4), B.J. Watling (not out) 2 ( 26b); Extras (b-4, w-5): 9; Total (for one wkt. in 10 overs): 22.

Fall of wicket: 1-4 (McIntosh).

India bowling: Zaheer 4-2-7-1, Sreesanth 1-0-4-0, Ojha 3-2-1-0, Raina 1-0-1-0, Dhoni 1-0-5-0 .

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