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Cricket: Black Caps crumble in Ashwin's hands (and fingers)

Batting contagion struck New Zealand's middle order again to hobble their chances in the third and final test of the Indian series.

The Black Caps lost four wickets for 14 runs in the space of 32 balls in the middle session on the third day, ending any hopes of gaining first innings parity.

Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Martin Guptill and Luke Ronchi fell to the handiwork of Indian off spinner Ravichandran Ashwin, who finished with six wickets for 81 from 27.2 overs.

Guptill's exit was freakish as he loomed into form. He was backing up as Ronchi launched a straight drive. Ashwin's fingertip touched the ball before it crashed into the stumps with Guptill's bat raised.

Incredibly, Jeetan Patel suffered the same fate when a caught-and-bowled straight drive from Matt Henry also slipped through Ashwin's hands into the stumps.

The four middle order wickets exemplified the Indian off spinner's dominance in the series. He has taken 20 wickets at 21.05, striking every 39 balls. Williamson was cramped up and bowled; Taylor and Ronchi edged to Ajinkya Rahane at slip.

The visitors were dismissed for 299 - they are yet to pass 300 in the series - but Indian captain Virat Kohli opted not to enforce the follow-on. The hosts were 18 without loss at stumps, a lead of 276.

The fall of New Zealand wickets two through to five has morphed from a problem into a stigma. At Kanpur, the middle order lost 4-60 and 4-155; at Kolkata it was 4-86 and 4-50. Today's effort was the crowning disappointment after Guptill (72) and Tom Latham (53) had toiled for a 118-run opening stand.

India's efforts in the first two tests - 4-55 and 4-92, 4-165 and 4-67 - were only slightly better but 4-444 in Indore, courtesy of Kohli and Rahane differentiated the sides.

Taylor's form slump is compounding the batting woes. He's made 57 runs at an average of 11.40 this series. Include the South African tour and it extends to 60 runs at 8.57. Those are figures at complete odds with his 364 unbeaten runs against Zimbabwe.

New Zealand bolstered their order this test by including Jimmy Neesham at the expense of pace bowler Neil Wagner. He justified his inclusion with 71 and might have advanced further if the Decision Review System was in place for his lbw. Ashwin's delivery pitched outside the line and looked to be missing off stump but no review means no debate.

Neesham's look of disgust, as he saw a replay in the dressing room, was understandable.

The debate whether Guptill should remain a test opener has swirled for several matches, but he seized a chance to reignite his career.

He reached his first half century in nine innings, a drought stretching back to 87 against Zimbabwe in the second test at Bulawayo. Before that it was 50 against Sri Lanka in Hamilton last December.

At the other end, Latham delivered his methodical subcontinental technique to reach his third half-century of the series. He was dismissed by Ashwin with what looked like a half volley on his pads. The ball proved slower than anticipated. A caught-and-bowled ballooned from a leading edge.

The Guptill-Latham opening partnership was their third highest in 29 innings together. The best was 169 against Zimbabwe in August and backed up by the 148 on debut as a combination against England at Lord's in May 2015.

The contribution came at a desperate time staring down India's first innings of 557-5 declared.

In fairness, the selectors have always kept faith in Guptill, backing him to play his natural attacking game and accepting his failures as a by-product. Guptill's response was promising as a way of paying back their loyalty. His previous 28 innings in his current stint as opener averaged 27.39.

There were anxious moments. On the second ball of the 13th over he edged Mohammed Shami to Rahane at gully. The ball was spilt at stomach height. Guptill was 21.

Jadeja had an lbw shout to start the 28th over which was going down leg but worth an ask. Guptill adapted from previous tests, bringing his front foot down the line of leg stump rather than middle. That raised doubt for umpire Bruce Oxenford who could see at least two of Guptill's stumps.

Guptill executed some delightful strokes. The highlights came at the end of the 24th over. Jadeja dropped short with his fifth ball. Guptill saw it early, got into position on the back foot and savaged it over mid-wicket. He reinforced his dominance with a lofted off drive for six to complete the over.

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