Bangalore: In a match that saw both sides scrap till the end, Virat Kohli guided India in a tense fourth-innings chase, hitting an unbeaten half-century that underlined his growing stature and gave India a 2-0 sweep against New Zealand at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore.
Kohli shared an unbroken stand of 96 for the sixth wicket with MS Dhoni, who finished the match with a six to bring up a hard-fought five-wicket win. Kohli's heroics, coming after India were in some strife at 166 for 5, meant he wasn't dismissed for less than 50 in the series which he ended with an average of 106.
India had been left with a chase of 261 after New Zealand's last-wicket pair lasted only 17 minutes on the fourth morning. New Zealand were bowled out for 248 when Jeetan Patel was adjudged caught behind off Zaheer Khan. With good reason, Patel wasn’t happy with the decision, as replays showed there was daylight between bat and ball. It did, however, go down in the record books as Zaheer's 100th Test wicket in India.
Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag came out to begin India's chase, amidst a growing stream of questions about their Test form. For almost an hour, they held those questions at bay with attacking, positive cricket that neutralised the threat of the new ball and got India off to a flying start.
They were helped by the fact that New Zealand's pacers didn't bowl with the accuracy and venom of the first innings. Anything wide of off-stump was crashed through the offside, and half-volleys on leg-stump were deftly clipped and flicked.
Gambhir's footwork was much more assured as was his leaving of balls outside off-stump, while Sehwag had the crowd in raptures with his timing.
However, their dominance didn't last. Ross Taylor threw the ball to Patel, and though Patel was thumped for a six and a four by Sehwag, he had the last laugh. Sehwag danced down the track and completely missed the ball, which duly crashed into his stumps. It was a terrible shot and though Sehwag's 38 off 33 balls had given India a good platform of 77, he was guilty of throwing away an opportunity to build on it even further.
Patel seemed to have been brought on for the sole purpose of tempting Sehwag out, because after bowling the 12th over, he only came back into the attack in the 30th over.
By then, Gambhir had also fallen to a catch in the slips, with Trent Boult the wicket-taker. In the 20 balls he faced after Sehwag's dismissal, Gambhir scored only one run, and perhaps the pressure of being stifled led to him poking away from his body outside the off-stump in what has become a familiar mode of dismissal. That Gambhir tried to dab a ball to third man with a packed slip cordon only served to illustrate the foolhardiness of the shot.
India had gone from 77 for no loss to 83 for 2, and the middle-order no longer had the reassuring faces of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.
Sachin Tendulkar and Cheteshwar Pujara stalled further inroads by building a stand that put a premium on caution at the start. Tendulkar, facing a form-battle of his own, was on nought when India went in to lunch at 88 for 2, but began finding his timing in the afternoon session.
Pujara, who had been dismissed in the first innings hooking, was subjected to a barrage of short-pitched bowling. Pujara often faced the pacers with both a fine-leg and a square-leg in place.
Pujara wasn't always convincing against the short stuff, being pinged on the helmet once and ducking slightly late under some of Tim Southee's more well-directed bumpers. On the whole, though, he acquitted himself fairly well, and wasn't pinned to the back foot defensively, even executing a superbly hit pull shot.
Tendulkar and Pujara had both started looking more comfortable, and in one Southee over, Tendulkar hit two delicious shots – one through the covers, the other deflected past gully – when play was stopped due to rain.
It was only a drizzle, but with dark clouds overhead, the covers came on and resulted in almost an hour's stoppage. From the point of view of the sizeable Monday crowd at the stadium, the rain had exhibited a remarkable lack of the timing that Tendulkar and Pujara had just begun to show.
The rain meant tea was taken early, but more crucially, it meant India's momentum was halted just when it was building. When the players came back out, disaster struck with Tendulkar and Pujara both falling quickly.
Tendulkar was bowled in almost identical fashion to the first innings, playing across the line and missing a ball from Southee, while Pujara fell to Patel, pushing at a ball that spun more than he thought, took the inside edge, and lobbed up for Daniel Flynn to take a fine catch.
When Suresh Raina lost his stumps to Patel in a rush of blood while stepping down the track, India were up against it at 166 for 5. Another wicket at that stage would have probably resulted in a New Zealand victory, but Kohli and Dhoni held firm.
Dhoni didn't let any scoring opportunity slip, while Kohli seemed to continue from where he left off in the first innings, unfurling magnificent shots. Not too slowly, but surely, the duo whittled down the target, and pushed Taylor on the defensive.
Dhoni either stayed back or came well forward, while Kohli was his usual compact self, dotted with flourishes in the 'V'. With the target suddenly a stone's throw away, both exploded in a flurry of boundaries, the end coming with more than a day to spare. It was suitable that it was MS Dhoni who hit the winning shot, that gave him 14 wins as captain on Indian soil – the most by any Indian captain in history.