Wellington: India haven’t won a Test match in New Zealand for 10 years and 11 months now. That’s indubitable, but what that doesn’t say is that in the intervening period, they have only played four Tests in the land of the flightless bird and the white fern.
In those four Tests, India were robbed of victory in Wellington in 2009 by the weather, fell short by 40 runs while chasing 407 at Eden Park and then saw Brendon McCullum capitalize on an early life in the second innings, again in Wellington, to script a get-out-of-jail triple-hundred, both in 2014. So distant and short are Test face-offs between these two nations in New Zealand that, since the turn of the millennium, India have played just seven Tests. That’s one less than the number of Tests Bangladesh have hosted India in. Something to ponder, there?
It’s possibly presumptuous to assume so, considering they are still only 31, 31 and 32 respectively, but with the historic long gaps between India’s Test visits to this part of the world, this could well be the last time Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara are together playing five-day cricket in New Zealand. Under the Future Tours Programme, India won’t be travelling to New Zealand for any form of cricket till at least February 2023, so the next two matches offer this troika potentially their last two opportunities to notch up a Test victory here as a singular batting unit.
For almost a half-dozen years now, apart from the occasional, perhaps unwarranted, axing of either vice-captain Rahane or the senior-most active Indian Test batsman Pujara, these three have formed the solid core of the Indian batting. Pujara at No. 3, Kohli one position below and Rahane at No. 5 is as formidable a pack as there is in world cricket; Kohli has 84 Test caps, Pujara 75 and Rahane 63, and between them, they have amassed 17,054 runs, inclusive of 56 centuries.
Together, they have been part of multiple Test victories in Australia, England, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, and at least one in South Africa. They haven’t played Test cricket at all in Pakistan and Zimbabwe, or Afghanistan and Ireland; Pujara wasn’t in the XI that squared off against Bangladesh in a one-off Test in Fatullah in June 2015, a match badly hit by the weather and predictably ending in a stalemate.
New Zealand, therefore, remains the only territory where the three current flag-bearers of Indian Test batting haven’t enjoyed the taste of victory when they have played as a collective. Admittedly, the data base is extremely thin – just those two Tests in 2014 when Rahane and Kohli made a hundred each while Pujara’s highest score in four innings was 23. By the end of the forthcoming series, all other things being equal, that base would have doubled, though.
Without taking home victories for granted, there is a certain allure to winning overseas that is infinitely more gratifying. The conquest of largely unfamiliar conditions, and of bowling attacks weaned on such conditions, makes victory in the so-called SENA – South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia – nations a fulfilling proposition. While the challenges of playing elsewhere in the world can’t be discounted, the embellishment of pace bowling in these countries through either swing, seam and bounce, or a combination of all these elements, elevates run-making to a far higher plane.
Each of these three batting giants has played a part in victories away from home, away from the sub-continent and even outside of the Caribbean where India haven’t lost a Test match since 2002. Rahane stroked a magnificent 103 when India put it past England at Lord’s in July 2014 and Kohli’s away record is second to none outside of the aforementioned England tour. Pujara was the difference between the teams when India registered their maiden series win in Australia 13 months back, an effort head coach Ravi Shastri placed even above the 1983 World Cup triumph under Kapil Dev.
The immovable No. 3 alone batted more than the entire duration of a Test match while stacking up 521 runs, bolstered by three centuries including one each in the victories in Adelaide and Melbourne. It has to be the crowning glory of a fabulous career during which, despite the whims of selection and barbs about his strike-rate, he averages 49.48 and boasts tons in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Southampton.
Now, for this threesome, New Zealand looms as the final frontier. Their legacy will not necessarily be defined by whether they end up as part of a Test win in New Zealand or not. Driven more by providing the solidity around which the younger batsmen can express themselves than by the push for records or milestones, their responsibility will be infinitely more on this tour than any before.
As an entity, New Zealand will throw up questions that not many other cricket nations do. The wind and the cold are always just round the corner, so to say; no one in this Indian batting unit has previously played at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, where the second Test will be staged from 29 February. Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner are excellent anywhere in the world, but especially in New Zealand where each grows additional fangs.
But on the plus side, after early assistance for the quicks, surfaces generally tend to flatten out and become better for batting. Given the lack of international experience of the other specialist batsmen in the squad – Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill combined have 18 Test caps – it becomes incumbent upon the skipper, his deputy and their trusted foot-soldier to lead the way in all manner imaginable.
That this is India’s last Test series till almost the end of the year is something that won’t be lost on Pujara and Rahane, especially. Pujara is exclusively a red-ball international cricketer, and Rahane has also been so for two years now, having played the last of his 90 One-Day Internationals in Centurion in February 2018, though there are whispers that that might change soon. The added incentive for Pujara, if that is necessary, is to build on his very modest record in New Zealand and further ignite his team’s charge towards the Lord’s final next year of the inaugural World Test Championship.
Kohli, all incandescence from the passionate fire raging within, hasn’t had a great tour by most standards, and certainly by his own lofty levels. His highest score in seven innings is 51, he has been dismissed for 15 or less four times. These aren’t statistics that will impress the man who keeps demanding so much of himself, both in terms of effort and output. From India’s point of view, a hungry, charged-up, point-to-prove-to-himself Kohli is perhaps the ideal proposition going into a series where so much hinges, despite its apparent low profile owing to the time difference between India and here, and the lukewarm response from even otherwise passionate Indian fans based in New Zealand to the white-ball internationals. If he, and/or the man either side of him in the batting order bed in, waking up to a 4 am start in India will be totally worth it.
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Cheteshwar Pujara has scored 6713 runs at 43.87 in 95 Tests for India.
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