The contest was a superb advertisement for one-day cricket, promoting the event as a spectacle, rather than the skills and finesse of the sport itself. That is what the pyjama game is all about, and so it should remain - a close contest, with all results realistically attainable right until the very last delivery. A pity that the skills on display were quotidian rather than sublime, but then, that is why we have Test matches, as has been evinced in this series.
Mohammad Azharuddin won the toss, for the 20th time in 22 attempts, and had no hesitation in sending New Zealand in to bat on a pitch which looked to have a bit in it for the seamers. However, although Prasad bowled a very demanding opening spell, making the batsmen play and miss on several occasions, the Kiwis were able to weather the Indian attack, progressing to a very respectable 76 for 1 after the first fifteen overs. They had been aided by some characteristically sloppy efforts in the field, and the inability of the bowlers to stick to a consistent line. What nobody could have predicted, however, was the comedy of errors which was to follow, even though the stage had been well set by the run out of Bryan Young.
Young was run out in the second over of the innings, the blame lying squarely on his partner, Matthew Horne. Aiming a flick through mid wicket, Young edged into his pads, and called ``No!'' loudly enough for the entire crowd to hear. Horne however, had other ideas, and despite Young's insistence, scampered through to the strikers end. When the bails where whipped off, the only surprise was that it was Young who had to depart, as he had unwittingly been standing just outside the batting crease. The first of a record-equalling five run-outs, this was probably the least farcical of them all.
After the dangerous McMillan had nicked one from Robin Singh, Horne took over again, claiming his second victim of the innings. With the score at 88, Roger Twose fished outside his off stump, and got an inside edge, which Mongia contrived to spill. The hapless batsman looked up, no doubt somewhat relieved, only to find Matthew Horne bearing down on him at full pelt. Twose had no option but to run for his life, but although Mongia inexplicably aimed initially as if to throw unederarm at the strikers end stumps, he recovered to effect a weak overhand lob to the bowlers end. Robin Singh collected, some 5 feet away from the stumps, but still had enough time to whip off the bails long before Twose was home.
Cairns and Horne made good progress, taking the score past 150, without appearing to take any chances, but once Horne was trapped plumb in front by Tendulkar for the second match in succession, the New Zealand innings disintegrated.
Parore was brilliantly stumped down the leg side by Mongia off the bowling of that man Tendulkar. The Indian keeper gathered the ball, made as if to break the wickets, and then stopped at the last minute, observing that Parore was still in his crease. As if on cue, Parore moved his back leg out of his ground, allowing Mongia to whip off the bails on the second attempt.
The fun really started here, with new captain Dion Nash not wanting to miss out on the party. Playing a delivery from the impressive Nikhil Chopra out to the man at point, he set off for an impossible run. As he saw Ajay Jadeja gather the ball, he hesitated, but rather than turn back, he decided to take another two steps forward. He then hesitated again, this time deciding to turn around. Jadeja then added to the entertainment, by throwing the ball a good few yards behind the stumps, as if to give Nash a chance. Mongia was in no mood for games though, and flinging himself through the air, threw the ball towards the stumps, and the skipper became the third run out victim of the innings.
Next on the list was Daniel Vettori, although he may want to blame Chris Harris for his dismissal. Harris drove out towards a deepish mid on, and the batsman ran an easy single. Vettori wanted to come back for two, but having made it half way, found that Harris wasn't interested. Neither were the fielders it appeared, with the throw coming in to the wrong end. Chopra was somewhat alert, and aimed a throw from the bowlers end down to the keeper, but yet again, it was wildly off target, and Mongia had a lot of work to do in order to claim what should have been a simple run out.
The fifth and final run out was a little less comical - Harris was sent back by Larsen, after the two had gone through the whole range of calls, but he never had a chance, as Azharuddin swooped at mid wicket, turned, and threw straight over the stumps in one motion, setting an example his teammates would do well to learn from. New Zealand had stumbled their way to 213, a total which should have been well within the Indians reach.
The Kiwis were nothing if not fired up in the field though, eager to compensate for their lapses in the first innings, and Cairns in particular came out bowling with genuine pace. Sachin Tendulkar came out looking to dominate as always, but continuing where he had left off in the Tests, he was far from commanding, and it was no surprise when in the eighth over, he guided one from Nash low to Bryan Young in the slips, where the comeback man pulled off a fine catch.
Dravid came in, and was watchful from the start, mindful of the fact that the pitch was doing a little. At the other end, Saurav Ganguly struggled as he has done all tour. He continues to be weak off his legs, and it is always interesting to note that whilst the other Indian batsmen seem to use their wrists superbly to work the ball away on the on-side, Ganguly rotates not his wrists, but his entire body - legs, upper torso and all - in order to achieve the same. It wasn't long before Nash dismissed him, with a great lifter finding the edge, and suddenly, India seemed to have a lot to do.
Harris and Larsen were bowling in tandem once the 15 over restrictions were removed, and with captain Nash setting an aggressive field, with 6 or 7 men in the circle preventing the single, the Indians, and Azharuddin in particular, found it hard to play their customary game of working the singles to keep the scoreboard ticking. Just as had happened at Taupo, frustration got the better of the Indian skipper, and he lashed out at a delivery from Larsen, finding the thick edge. Parore was standing up to the stumps, and although the catch may have looked simple, it really was a superb effort, and the Kiwi keeper let the crowd know that with his enthusiastic celebration.
After Vettori foudn the edge of Dravid's bat with one which both turned and bounced, Jadeja felt the need to get in on the run-out act, and was caught by a Chris Harris special, a direct hit finding the batsman sauntering home with his bat well past the crease, but, unforgiveably, in the air and not on the ground. Players have been dropped for less, and one wonders if it might not serve as a wake up call to the Indians to make an example of their vice captain.
This brought the much maligned Mongia to the crease, and although those around him tried their best to give it away, he guided India to within 10 runs with 2 overs remaining. Chopra, who would probably have been run out earlier had the frame rate of the square-on camera been higher, ran himself out, and with Anil Kumble unable to connect with his extravagant cover drives (when will he develop another stroke?), India still needed 8 off the last over.
A thick outside edge for four later, and India were back in the drivers seat, so to speak, and Mongia finished it off with a push through the covers for two, squaring the series in the process.
It was very ordinary cricket throughout, and neither side deserved to win, but they matched each other blow for blow, and spectators are undoubtedly assured of another close encounter at Wellington tomorrow.