England couldn't do it, nor could Australia. West Indies, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh were blown away. New Zealand themselves, the last time that they were in India, hardly posed a challenge. But the limited-overs series between the Kiwis and Virat Kohli's men that just got over was different. The record books would say that the Indian juggernaut rolled on, but as has been the famous saying, what statistics reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.
India's ODI and T20I series victories may tell you that Kohli and Co continued to be dominant at home, but what you may not realise immediately is how close the hosts were to being upset in both the series. The Kiwis gave India a run for their money, but failed tantalisingly short of achieving the improbable, curiously by the same narrow margin of six runs, in both the ODI and T20I series deciders. These couple of series were the most hotly-contested that India have had to face in a long time.
"In both of them (deciders), we were very good, just not good enough. Both of them came down to the last couple of balls and when that is the case it's such small margins," rued New Zealand captain Kane Williamson after the Thiruvananthapuram T20I, but the visitors can really hold their heads high. They made India stretch, unlike some of the other teams before them, and there was precious little to choose between the two sides.
The Indians, on the other hand, would be happy to have had such a thorough workout just before the tour of South Africa in January-February, 2018 that would feature three Tests, six ODIs and three T20Is. It goes without saying that the Indian team which has been rampant, more or less in all three formats, since the tour of Sri Lanka in 2015, would be facing its biggest challenge yet in the South African veldts.
And here lies the importance of the stern New Zealand test that Kohli and Co had to go through, much in the same manner that a tough tour of South Africa gave valuable match practice ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
In the ODI series, India came back with a bang after being disposed off pretty easily in the first match in Mumbai. In the T20I series, it was New Zealand's turn to make a thunderous return after a comprehensive defeat in the opener. The finales of both series were absolute slug fests, with both of them going down to the wire, in which India just got their noses in front. There was a distinct pattern to the two series in that regard.
This gave India belief that they could wriggle out of tight corners, which is such an essential aspect of any champion team. The Indians held their nerves in crunch moments in both the series deciders to carry the day, and for that they have to thank Jasprit Bumrah to a large extent.
In a high-scoring contest in the Kanpur one-dayer, the slinger applied the choke hold at the death, much the same way that he did in the Thiruvananthapuram T20I. Going at under five runs per over, when the opposition scores 331 takes something special. Bumrah did exactly that and sealed the deal in Kanpur. In Thiruvananthapuram, the challenge was to defend a middling total. He was only allowed two overs at the most, according to stipulations following a rain interruption and resultant truncation of play. But he ensured that those two overs were absolute gems, going for a mere nine runs and snapping up two wickets, including that of Colin Munro, the centurion from the last match. Bumrah being the pick of the bowlers is fast becoming as routine as Kohli turning up and scoring hundreds at will.
Bumrah got able support from Yuzvendra Chahal in both series finales, with the leg-spinner going for less than five runs per over in Kanpur and only eight runs in his two overs in Thiruvananthapuram.
Kohli was among the runs with two hundreds in three one-dayers, Rohit Sharma scored a sublime 147 in the final ODI and an equally fluent 80 in the first T20I. His opening partner Shikhar Dhawan played a big part in India's comeback in the ODI series, anchoring India's chase with a fine half-century in Pune, and slammed 80 in the T20I opener at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Bhuvneshwar Kumar put up a stellar show again as he usually does and helped India turn the tables on New Zealand in Pune with figures of 3/45 in his 10 overs.
So in the final analysis, what served India well was their ability to bounce back from reverses, a trait lacking in some of the earlier Indian teams, and a trait that was brought into focus by a feisty New Zealand side. And these victories would taste sweeter for India because they were accomplished with a lot of effort, and against considerable odds, and also because they steeled India for bigger battles ahead. In every measure, the Kiwis deserve credit for making India dig deep and bring out the very best that they had.