India 316 (Pujara 87, Rahane 77, Saha 54*, Henry 3-46) and 263 (Rohit 82, Saha 58*, Boult 3-38, Henry 3-59, Santner 3-60) beat New Zealand 204 (Bhuveneshwar 5-48) and 197 (Latham 74, Jadeja, 3-41, Shami 3-46, Ashwin 3-82) by 178 runs
This was a hugely impressive victory for India in conditions far less suited to their typical strategy than in Kanpur, where the pitch took significant turn and spin played a defining role. In Kolkata the pitch instead offered notable assistance to the seam bowlers which played to New Zealand’s strengths. Despite the conditions though India still won emphatically and that they did was largely due to the lengths bowled by their seam bowlers, particularly Bhuveneshwar Kumar.
The primary reason for the Kolkata pitch suiting seam bowlers was variable bounce, which was most prevalent for balls pitching in the rough region between 7.00 and 9.00 metres from the batsman’s stumps, illustrated by the graph below and compared against Australia’s Test match versus New Zealand at the Gabba last year.
In New Zealand’s first innings Bhuveneshwar became the first bowler of the match to exploit this variable bounce when he took 5 for 48, including 3 for 13 in three overs, as he gutted New Zealand’s lower middle order on the way to ensuring India gained a significant first innings lead; something Ross Taylor felt was critical to the outcome of the match. Bhuveneshwar was certainly assisted by conditions on the second evening, when a two hour rain delay followed by a passage of play in gloomy conditions with the floodlights on appeared to liven up the pitch and make batting more difficult, but he did bowl with superb intelligence and accuracy to make the most of them.
In the first innings Bhuveneshwar bowled 59% of his deliveries in the length range at which the variable bounce was at its most pronounced, 22% higher than the next best which was Mohammad Shami and 24% higher than the best New Zealand bowler. All five of Bhuveneshwar’s wickets in the first innings fell to balls that pitched between 7 and 9 metres from the batsman’s stumps.
On average, Bhuveneshwar’s pitching length in the first innings was 7.76 metres from the batsman’s stumps, interestingly that is slightly shorter than what you would consider to be his ‘natural’ length. For example, against the West Indies in St. Lucia this August his average pitching length in each innings was 7.05 and 6.67. This suggests that here, in Kolkata, Bhuveneshwar brought his length back after recognising the best length to bowl and then proceeded to land the ball there regularly. Combine the variable bounce that Bhuveneshwar was achieving with his ability to swing the ball both ways and that is a deadly combination.
After Bhuveneshwar’s first innings five wicket haul the New Zealand’s seamers readjusted their lengths, increasing the proportion of deliveries bowled in that two metre range, and in India’s second innings their seam bowlers did find more uneven bounce as they ran through India’s top order.
However, although New Zealand did improve their lengths they made a costly tactical error when they reduced India to 43 for 4 by targeting Virat Kohli with the short ball on a pitch that was misbehaving from a fuller length. New Zealand have had success against Kohli with the short ball, and did so as recently as the first innings of the Test. However, after conceding a first innings lead of 112 New Zealand arguably did not have the runs to play with to adopt such a strategy. 14 of Kohli’s first 29 balls, including nine in a row at one stage, were pitched 10 metres from him or shorter, only nine of those 30 deliveries pitched in the two metre range that was misbehaving.
New Zealand’s tactic afforded Kohli time to acclimatise to the conditions and by the time they pushed their lengths fuller he was in and 45 runs later the match had drifted just that little bit further away from the visitors. All that was then left was perhaps Rohit Sharma’s finest Test innings for India, characterised by soft hands and superb technique nullifying the variable bounce, to take the match well and truly beyond New Zealand.
It is interesting to consider why New Zealand were slower to pick up the length to bowl and not so consistent at doing so once they did. Perhaps because they are a team from outside of Asia and this was a match being played on the sub-continent their seamers felt a need to do something different and try various tactics. Line and length is perfect in New Zealand but conventional wisdom suggests seam bowling in India requires more variation. On this pitch however, it appeared that the opposite was the case.
It will only frustrate New Zealand further that after their spinners struggled to maintain control in Kanpur, dropping short or over-pitching 21% of their deliveries, they improved in Kolkata with just 13% of deliveries outside the three to six metre range. They’ll be hoping that in the final Test in Indore both the seamers and the spinners can get things right together.
Freddie Wilde is an analyst at CricViz.