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WTC Final, Reserve Day: All to play for

Going into the reserve day, WTC final tantalisingly poised with Kiwis marginally in front

Three years after it began, the World Test Championship has reached its final lap with all options open: A thrilling draw or a win for either side though undoubtedly, New Zealand have a greater chance. India have eight second-innings wickets in hand and are 32 runs ahead but Tim Southee’s famous ‘three-quarter-seam ball’ strengthened the Kiwis’ hand by taking out the openers. The wicket of Rohit Sharma, who had helped India erase the 32-run first innings deficit after Mohammed Shami’s four-for had restricted New Zealand to 249, was a big blow.

It’s the nip-backer from a length that Southee struck twice with after crafty set-up. The grip of the three-quarter seam is worth several peeks at the slow-motion replays. He has both his fingers on one side of the ball – the right side that would tilt into the right-hander, but somehow manages to keep the seam upright and tilted to wobble in. Southee developed it as he couldn’t get the inswinger going with the traditional fingers-on-the seam position or cutting across it.

Shubman Gill’s LBW, attempting a whip through midwicket, wasn’t a surprise as the youngster doesn’t always shift his weight forward in time. Sharma’s scalp will be a classic YouTube moment and a gif in years to come. Repeatedly, Southee curled the ball away and as dark clouds peppered the sky near stumps, he suddenly bent one in. Sharma, who had done all the hard work with yet another impressively compact knock helping India erase the deficit and inch ahead, didn’t pick it out of the hand and shouldered arms.

Shami to the rescue

Before Southee, it was Shami who had pushed the Test towards a thrilling finale. Here is the context in which Shami came to bowl. Runs had dried up, no wickets, though. Jasprit Bumrah hadn’t been able to get the ball to seam or bounce much. Ishant Sharma was a lot better, but the length was a fraction short. Just after the first hour, the broadcasters flashed a stat that only seven balls would have hit the stumps. The run-choke pressure was piled on admirably but 30-40 minutes more of wicket-less attrition might have put New Zealand in control.

Ross Taylor had worn down the incoming-ball-LBW threat from Ishant by opening his front foot and pressing it straight ahead rather than across. Virat Kohli buttressed the off-side field to make Ishant probe the outside edge too rather than being unidimensional. Taylor adjusted. Williamson’s record in England hasn’t been good and he was taking no chances with the final wide open. Tuk-Tuk cricket was on – from 101 for 2 overnight, they had added 16 runs in 14 overs with Taylor eking out 11 from 34. Clearly, if it had to take a toll on anyone’s concentration levels, it would be Taylor’s. But the ball had to be good enough to lure him to combust. It was then that Shami came up with a six-metre tempter and Taylor lashed out for the jailbreak cover drive, but India had Gill close and rather straight – and he dived to his right to take a good catch.

On song, Shami does three things fabulously well. The dreamy seam presentation, the heavy ball, and the ability to seam the ball without telegraphing it at release. By adding the fuller length, he started to choke the batsmen. In the interim, Kohli began to move his bowling pieces thoughtfully. Ishant was brought back to test the left-handed Henry Nicholls from round the stumps. Nicholls poked at the angle and Rohit Sharma lunged to his right at second slip as the ball shaped away to take the edge.

Shami then turned on the screws. In his penultimate Test innings, BJ Watling couldn’t cover the pacy straightener that knocked the off-peg. A few overs later, once he got the new ball – he should have partnered Ishant at the start of the day as Bumrah has undoubtedly been the least effective Indian seamer in the game – Shami played the two-card trick against the aggressive Colin de Grandhomme. Two away-curlers from close to the stumps were followed by a full nip-backer from wide of the stumps that pinned the pads.

Williamson had walled up, meanwhile. He ticked all the requirements needed to soak up the bowler-friendly conditions: soft hands, head over the ball, playing late and playing the line, and immense patience. Probably his first mistake cost him his wicket on 49. It was a good-length delivery a tad outside off stump, that lured him into a lame poke and Kohli nabbed it at a wide second slip.

Unsurprisingly, the strong New Zealand lower order wagged with breezy cameos from Kyle Jamieson and Southee before Shami yet again provided the breakthrough. He bounced out Jamieson but by the time the innings ended, New Zealand had taken a vital lead.

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