Most of us, Indian cricket’s baby boomers, have been fed over the last 50-odd years with an overdose of spin bowling. Though the slow stuff has been of a high quality and often absorbing, the sight of Indian pacers going for the opposition’s jugular, in recent times, has been refreshing. Pace is ace for India now. Therefore, to say that Team India’s performances in New Zealand this past month, where we were beaten black and blue by the Black Caps, have been disheartening, would be an understatement.
The New Zealanders played good hosts, to begin with, losing the T20i matches 0-5. With a little bit of application on the part of their batsmen, that ‘slam-bang’ series could also have gone the home team’s way. However, the tourists were crushed 3-0 in the one-day internationals (ODI) that followed and then the Test matches at Wellington and at Christchurch were pretty much one-sided, with Virat Kohli’s ‘world-beaters’ cutting a dreadfully sorry figure.
India’s head-coach Ravi Shastri’s declared intention has been to own the 22 yards at most cricket stadiums in the world. This was not to be, at least at Basin Reserve or at the Hagley Oval. It seemed, after the Test series was over that the Indians were unceremoniously evicted from the two plots like illegal occupants — forget owning them.
In fact, for the Test matches, the New Zealanders had offered India wickets that were ideally suited for their attack consisting of Jasprit Singh Bumrah, Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Navdeep Saini. They had thrown down the gauntlet; it was winner-take-all. Of course, the home team had Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner, young Kyle Jamieson and Colin de Grandhomme in their ranks. The team that made use of the seaming tracks better would win. In that sense, the Indian bowlers failed miserably.
I am not for a moment suggesting here that India’s world-class top order batsmen covered themselves with glory in the two-Test series. Not at all! A few gritty knocks from either Ajinkya Rahane or Mayank Agarwal or Cheteshwar Pujara aren’t going to win for India any series, especially away from home. When arguably the best batsman in the world gets 2, 19, 3 and 14 in four Test innings, you know things have gone awfully off beam. Moreover, Rishabh Pant, who was played ahead of the more efficient ‘keeper, Wriddhiman Saha in the two Tests was an abject failure — both as a ‘keeper and as a batsman.
Now compare this to skipper Kane Williamson’s 89 in the first innings of the 1st Test that laid the foundation for a sizeable total at Basin Reserve. Ross Taylor 44, de Grandhomme 43, Jamieson 44 and last man Boult, who in his own imitable style scored 38, helped the home team put pressure on the Indians. In the 2nd Test, Tom Latham scored half centuries in both innings, with Tom Blundell and Jamieson contributing 55 and 49 respectively in the New Zealanders’ seven-wicket win.
It was, however, the Indian pace attack that caused India’s downfall in New Zealand. Ishant Sharma, Bumrah and Shami let the home team pile up 348 in the first innings, on a helpful track, at Basin Reserve. That was a match-winning score. In the 2nd Test, after putting up 242 on the board, the Indian attack failed to wipe off the tail, with the Black Caps back on the ropes at 153 for 7. It was the tall Jamieson and Wagner who helped take New Zealand to within seven runs of the Indian total. That was where the Indians lost the 2nd Test too.
As long as cricket is played on this planet of ours, the bat versus ball debate will always go on. Therefore, in the present instance, a small comparison would perhaps help throw more light on the issue: In the two Tests, at Wellington and at Christchurch, the Indian pace attack of Bumrah, Shami and Ishant/Yadav picked 17 wickets conceding 540 runs. The New Zealanders, on the other hand, with their pace attack of Southee, Boult and Jamieson picked 34 wickets giving away 544 runs. We aren’t even talking here about de Grandhomme — who picked Kohli once — and Wagner, who softened up a couple of India’s top order batsmen with his bouncers. Is it surprising then that the Indians were trounced in the Test series?
On helpful tracks, Bumrah — who was returning from injury — and his associates were perhaps guilty of over trying. The New Zealanders kept it simple. They bowled at around 135 kph, in decent areas and stuck to a plan worked out for each of India’s top order batsmen. They let the ball do the talking, let it dart around and used patience as a ploy. I remember growing up, reading books on seam bowling by legendary England seamers Alec Bedser and Trevor Bailey and their advice on green tops was to pitch the ball in the right areas and to let the ball play its tricks. The New Zealanders did just that and succeeded.
While the Indian bowlers were guilty of trying too hard, the Team India think tank looked clueless through the two Test matches. The Black Caps intimidated Prithvi Shaw and Rahane into submission, trapped Agarwal, skipper Kohli and Pujara with late in-dippers and didn’t let Pant use the long handle. All planned to a nicety.
What the New Zealanders have achieved along with their ODI and Test series drubbing of India is that they have exposed some chinks in India’s armour. More importantly, they have shown other cricket playing nations that if Bumrah is played with a bit of caution, India can be beaten. Finally, the Black Caps have shown the world how not to behave even after beating the number one team in the world, comprehensively.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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