Test in balance after gripping first day
West Indies survived a daylight robbery by Harbahajan Singh and Suresh Raina to end the first day of the series in slight ascendance, if at all. A damp pitch with uneven bounce, early wickets, a counterattack, a collapse, a spectacular catch, watchful anxious end, the first day had it all.
The tone was set when India took the gamble of batting first on a moist pitch to allow their two spinners best use of a surface likely to break. Ravi Rampaul removed the openers in an unbroken eight-over spell in the heat and humidity of Kingston, getting at least one early wicket for a fourth time in his last five innings. Rahul Dravid looked as solid during his 40 as he had during his two match-winning fifties five years ago at the same venue. Devendra Bishoo, playing his third Test, then intervened to remove VVS Laxman, Dravid and MS Dhoni - close to 23,000 runs between them - in the space of 20 deliveries.
The way Harbhajan and Raina ran away with the initiative in a 146-run stand from 85 for 6, only bandanas and eye patches were missing. Even they couldn't see Fidel Edwards, though, who came back with a spell of seriously quick bowling to help West Indies take the last four wickets for 15 runs. A spell of attrition followed, but it was just as tense, and Ishant Sharma came away with Lendl Simmons' wicket.
In between there were unremarkable maiden Test innings for Abhinav Mukund and Virat Kohli. The first to fall in the morning, which now seems days ago, was M Vijay, who might as well have been wearing his IPL kit when he slapped a full and wide delivery straight to point. Abhinav, his state-mate and prolific run-getter in domestic cricket, came close to edging thrice before he played one on for 11.
Dravid and Laxman, batting together for the first time since the Boxing Day Test in Durban last year, handled the misbehaving pitch - length balls reared towards the bat handle, short ones hardly reached the keeper, and the spinners extracted appreciable turn - well during their 34-run stand. Bishoo then came on with immediate impact. He began with a perfect legbreak, just short of driving length, on off, and produced the outside edge from Laxman 17 minutes before lunch. After the interval Dravid hit Bishoo for two boundaries before the bowler got his own back with an edge off a full legbreak. Dhoni played a premeditated forward-defensive, and the extra bounce again took the shoulder of the bat. Not only was the bowling good until then, the captaincy too had been positive.
Harbhajan, though, played havoc with West Indies' minds. After watching Raina avoid an over full of hostile bouncers from Edwards, Harbhajan tore into Bishoo. What made it even better, and perhaps rattled West Indies more, was that it all featured little slogging. He hit his fourth, fifth and sixth deliveries for fours: over the bowler's head, a late-cut, and over midwicket. In the next over he cut Edwards for another four.
Raina, perhaps relieved at making it to the other end, pulled out two beautiful extra-cover drives off Bishoo's next over. Darren Sammy called back Rampaul, who tried to bowl fast and into Harbhajan's ribs. Harbhajan got inside the line twice and glanced him fine for fours before smacking another through extra cover. A clueless Bishoo served a full toss and a long hop in the next over, both of which Raina hit for fours. With barely a risk taken, the partnership now read 56 in 6.2 overs. Bishoo's figures had gone from 3.2-2-11-3 to 7-2-44-3. Harbhajan was 36 off 22, Raina 25 off 28.
It was sensational stuff, and West Indies were blown away. Rampaul and Sammy brought some sanity back to proceedings, but by then Harbhajan and Raina had their eyes set on big innings. While Harbhajan still kept hitting the boundaries, Raina dropped anchor, and followed Harbhajan to a half-century with two lovely push-driven straight fours off Sammy.
Lest it be thought that the pitch had become a featherbed, Rampaul produced two nasty ones to beat Raina even with the partnership about 70 runs old. Again the ball kicked from a length, and beat the outside edge. The batsmen, though, chose the last over before tea, bowled by Bishoo, to make a statement, slogging the hell out of him for 17 runs. That made it 150 runs for the second session, but Bishoo hadn't been entirely negated.
With Edwards breathing fire after tea, Bishoo ran in from deep backwards square, and to his left, and then flew further to his left to claim a top-edged hook from Harbhajan. There was more where that sharp bouncer came from. Edwards was searing quick. He operated at two lengths, either full and swinging in or aimed at the throat. Praveen Kumar fell to the full one, Amit Mishra to the bouncer. Raina, stranded at the other end, could have chosen to either trust the doughty Ishant Sharma or go for the big ones. He went for the latter, and found Bishoo again at deep backward square leg to fall for a second score in the 80s in his nine-Test career.
In reply West Indies were austere, India accurate. For one hour they went without a boundary, Praveen Kumar and Ishant were a bit mindful of not conceding too many runs too. There was an interrogation on, but it didn't quite reach a level where it could break the likes of Colonel Nathan R Jessep down. The truth, it seemed, lay in balls turning square and bouncing up and down. Who can, and who cannot, handle it?