Rahul Dravid stifled the brouhaha over India’s 3-0 clean sweep in the T20 series, highlighting instead that New Zealand team had to play three matches in six days, and having played in the final of the World Cup a few days earlier, would have been the worse for fatigue.
In this, he was being characteristically modest and fair, but with astute understanding also that the Kiwis were seeing the upcoming Test series as the more coveted prize on this tour, not the slam-bang stuff that came earlier and of which there had been a surfeit in recent weeks.
This is not to downplay the T20 format which fans follow zealously these days and players see as validation of their brand equity, rather to highlight how Test cricket has provided the heft and meaning to the remarkable trajectory of both India and New Zealand in the sport in the past few years, with the Kiwis edging ahead of India this year.
For New Zealand, being in the final of the 2019 ODI and 2021 T20 World Cups was undoubtedly very high achievement, but winning the inaugural World Test Championship in England was the pinnacle. That it came against India, then ranked no.1 in this format by ICC, made it even more significant.
The Kiwis are in India now as topnotchers now, having gone past India in the rankings when beating England earlier in the summer and consolidating their position with the WTC triumph. However, beating India in India is an altogether proposition, and I reckon Kane Williamson has spent the past week – having rested himself from the T20 series — working out ploys and strategies to pull off an unprecedented series win this time.
Williamson, who started his magnificent Test career with a century on debut in India (Ahmedabad, 2010), knows a thing or two about the hardships of playing here. The last time he brought his team to India, they were walloped 0-3, crumbling to spin on slow turners. Doubtless, playing on such surfaces will be the stiffest challenge for this time too.
Statistics show that India and New Zealand revel in their own conditions, particularly playing each other. Head-to-head, India have greater wins (21-13 from 60 Tests), mostly achieved on spin-friendly home pitches, but there are also two significant series wins in New Zealand.
In 1968, Tiger Pataudi’s team won 3-1, registering the country’s first overseas Test and series win. But the next away series win for India in New Zealand came 40-years later, in 2009. Despite having strong teams, beating the Kiwis in their own conditions remained a big challenge.
Playing in India, New Zealand’s record is worse though. They’ve always been a competitive side, have won the occasional Test, but never a series since bilateral contests between the two country’s started in 1955-56. Often, they’ve been routed, including the last time they were here in 2016.
In the past few years, New Zealand cricket’s trajectory has zoomed remarkably, culminating in the fantastic win against India in the WTC final. True, the Kiwis were a trifle lucky that Australia had fallen out of the race for a place in the final, losing valuable points refusing to tour South Africa.
But Williamson and his hardy team were to show their place in the final was well deserved, beating England en route, then clinching a close match against India with a strong show of skills and immense resolve to grab the title.
In the prior series against India at home, New Zealand had won both Tests emphatically, but the WTC final, played on neutral turf, highlighted how much they had progressed in the two-year cycle of the Test Championship. This was also massive boost in self-esteem and ambition which should resonate in the two-Test series beginning on Thursday.
These two matches are part of the WTC cycle which started earlier this year, and New Zealand know they have to fare well overseas too if they have to defend the title. Just home wins may not be good enough to see them into the final once again. Given how strong India usually are at home, visiting teams are always underdogs, but this time the teams would start as equals.
It’s not just that the New Zealand will be gung ho given their recent successes against India, but also because several key players have been rested. Without Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli (for the first Test), K L Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohamed Shami, this is virtually a second-string side except in the spin department.
But this gives opportunity for several in the Indian squad to prove a point of two. Largely, this has to do with the batting. The onus is greatest on veterans Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, both of whom have struggled for runs in the past two years. This could be a make or break series for them.
Besides these two, Mayank Agarwal, Shubhman Gill, Shreyas Iyer and Surya Kumar Yadav (if he gets into the playing XI) have to make their places secure for the future. Sending Hanuma Vehari to South Africa with the India A team was a selectorial boo boo, but this means lesser leeway for the abovementioned batsmen.
What works strongly in India’s favour, of course, is the spin department. There is no better spinner in the world currently than R Ashwin. Fiercely competitive, he is deadly because of his skills, control and guile, but also how well he reads the minds of batsmen. Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel are left-arm spinners of different styles, but deadly on home pitches.
It will hardly be a surprise if pitches at Kanpur and Mumbai are loaded in favour of slow bowlers. New Zealand have come better prepared for such contingency with five spinners in their squad, but clearly, it is how Williamson and the other batsmen play India’s spinners which holds the key to the result.