A match too far as the end of an unbeaten record looms for the Black Caps.
The world test champions will end a wonderful year with a comprehensive defeat to India in the second test in Mumbai, bar an early Christmas miracle.
Set an improbable target of 540 to win, New Zealand reached stumps on day three at 140-5, with Daryl Mitchell providing spirited resistance before falling for 60 off 92 balls while Henry Nicholls was unbeaten on 36.
That was an improvement on the woeful 62 all out of the first innings but left them still needing another 400 runs with two days remaining.
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New Zealand’s biggest fourth innings score is 451 against England in Christchurch in 2002 – when Nathan Astle scored the fastest double-ton in tests but the hosts still lost by 98 runs.
Mitchell at least made a compelling case to remain in the side for the first test of the home summer against Bangladesh, staring on New Year’s Day in Mount Maunganui, with a compelling performance when the rest of the top order were unable to impose themselves.
The impending defeat will take some gloss of Ajaz Patel’s remarkable match haul of 14-225, the second-best bowling return by a New Zealander in a test, bettered only by Sir Richard Hadlee’s 15-123 against Australia in Brisbane in 1985.
Ajaz Patel calls his rare feat in Mumbai ‘a special day for New Zealand’.
It was also a record for the most wickets taken by a bowler in a test in India, beating the previous mark held by England’s Ian Botham set at the same venue in 1980.
The loss – when it comes on day four on Monday – will end a run of 10 tests without defeat from February 2020 that set a new record for the national men’s side, in which there were eight victories.
After most things had worked brilliantly for coach Gary Stead, captain Kane Williamson and their charges this year, only Patel got it right in their final game of the year as the heat of a fired-up home side in Mumbai proved too toasty for the tourists.
Losing Williamson to his ongoing elbow troubles before the toss on day one was a dispiriting blow and while Patel looked to have kept New Zealand in the competition when India were dismissed for 325, there were already worrying signs the home team’s bowlers would flourish. That they did so to the extent that NZ’s first innings was the lowest score in test history in the country meant the game was over as a contest before stumps on day two.
After Mayank Agarwal contributed 35 per cent of India’s runs over both innings, captain Virat Kohli declared India’s second innings at 276-7, leaving his side more than seven sessions to bowl the tourists out.
Stand-in Black Caps captain Tom Latham faced 428 balls and batted for more than 10 hours in the first test in Kanpur but couldn’t offer more resistance than 16 runs in 29 minutes over two innings in Mumbai as an illustration of how even a world-class player like the opener had little left to give.
It’s highly unlikely Ross Taylor will be proud of his ugly six off eight balls without any application and it spoke loudly of a player whose mind was more on the plane home – and a period of MIQ – than the battle in front of him.
It won’t be how the Black Caps wanted – and probably deserved – to end a memorable 2021 when they earned the No 1 test ranking for the first time, won the inaugural World Test Championship final, beat England in a test series in the UK for the first time since 1999, and made it to the Twenty20 World Cup final for the first time, losing to Australia last month.
Like all international cricket sides, their players have spent vast amounts of time in hotels, firstly at home and then in England, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and finally India, with stints in quarantine, isolation and bio-secure bubbles before, amid and after.
New Zealand’s best test match bowling figures
15-123: Sir Richard Hadlee v Australia; Brisbane, 1985
14-225: Ajaz Patel v India; Mumbai, 2021
12-149: Daniel Vettori v Australia; Auckland, 2000
12-170: Daniel Vettori v Bangladesh; Chattogram, 2004
So just like all international cricket sides, there was a point when they fell far from their best – for New Zealand, it didn’t happen until their last outing.
Patel’s excellence partly took the spotlight off the selection decision not to play Neil Wagner, highlighted on day three by the therefore comical – or maddening – sight of Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson bowling around the wicket and short to the Indian openers as right-armed Wagner clones.
The Black Caps spinner became the third bowler in the history of tests to take all 10 wickets in an innings.
New Zealand’s brains trust went again with three spinners – Patel, off-spinner Will Somerville and batting all-rounder Rachin Ravindra (who got his maiden test wicket on Sunday in Kohli and added two more), as they had in the first test.
Spinners taking all 17 wickets for NZ may be used as justification of the Wankhede Stadium not being a wicket for the quicks, but Somerville was treated with disdain by India’s batters. The 37-year-old, who went wicket-less in the first test, had match figures of 0-139 off just 29 overs while Indian paceman Mohammed Siraj showed aggression and accuracy could be rewarded with his three wickets that ripped open NZ’s first innings batting.
Ultimately, Wagner’s presence wouldn’t have saved the test for New Zealand – not even Patel’s one-man show got them close.
India 325 and 276-7 dec (M Agarwal 62, C Pujara 47, S Gill 47, A Patel 41no; A Patel 4-106, R Ravindra 3-46) v New Zealand 62 and 140-5 (D Mitchell 60, H Nicholls 36no; R Ashwin 3-27).