A 5-0 T20I series defeat at the hands of the Men in Blue had certainly dented the hopes of the Black Caps. However, the hosts bounced back strongly with victories in three successive ODIs, thereby putting India in a spot of bother.
Given the see-saw battle in the white-ball leg of the series, there couldn’t have been a better way to kick off the two-match Test series, beginning at the Basin Reserve, Wellington on Friday.
The pinnacle of the sport has become a riveting affair with the advent of the World Test Championship and with sights firmly set on booking a ticket to next year’s finale at Lord's, plenty is at stake for both the sides.
Yet to concede their first loss in the World Test Championship cycle, India have steamrolled their opponents so far. They followed up their 2-0 clean sweep of West Indies in the latter’s backyard with the 3-0 and 2-0 drubbing of South Africa and Bangladesh respectively. The result: they sit comfortably atop the World Test Championship points table.
The Black Caps, on the other hand, occupy the sixth spot in the World Test Championship standings. After beating South Africa 1-0 in a two-match Test series, New Zealand suffered a 0-3 loss against Australia, a drubbing they would like to erase from their memory.
India will definitely miss the laidback elegance of Rohit Sharma. The Hitman was India’s opener in the home Test series against South Africa and Bangladesh and was in the midst of a stellar run across formats. But his calf injury throws open the opener’s slot, with Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill standing out as contenders to partner Mayank Agarwal.
Shaw was amongst the runs in domestic cricket instantly after returning from an eight-month doping ban — the highlight being his double hundred against Baroda. More recently, he smashed 150 on his India A return against New Zealand XI in a warm-up game. Gill, on the other hand, slammed a blistering double ton for India A against New Zealand XI, thus retaining his spot in the squad.
By the looks of it, it is Shaw who has the backing of skipper Virat Kohli and thus the upper-hand in this battle.
In the spin bowling department, Kuldeep Yadav, who did not feature in the five T20Is, has been dropped from Tests. Ravindra Jadeja, who has proved his mettle as a handy all-rounder lately, has got the selectors’ nod apart from the one specialist spinning option in Ravichandran Ashwin. The Wellington track will not have much on offer for the spinners and hence, the inclusion of Jadeja and a genuine spinner in Ashwin lends a sort of balance to the squad.
Ishant Sharma, who had twisted his ankle during a Ranji Trophy game, has been named in the squad subject to fitness. Kohli, however, said that his Delhi teammate looked as fit as ever and was pitching the ball in the right areas in the nets, thus hinting at the possible inclusion of the tall pacer in the squad.
That leaves us with one specialist spinner in the four-pronged bowling line-up for India. Kohli-led India boast of a lethal bowling attack, one that has the ability to pick up 20 wickets. The same will be put through a test on foreign soil, with India likely to ace the challenge given the seamer-friendly tracks they’ll be operating on.
Virat Kohli could manage only 75 runs from three ODI innings while Jasprit Bumrah’s figures read 30 wicketless overs for 167 runs. It would be unfair to brand these performances as a slump in form, given the lofty standards India’s premier batsman and bowler have set for themselves, but the Test series would be another opportunity to prove why they are the best in the business.
At a point of time, India invested heavily in Rishabh Pant, branding him as one for the future. His wicketkeeping errors and reckless hitting coincided with KL Rahul’s rise both as a versatile batsman and a promising keeper. While he was seen hitting the nets, it seems unlikely that he’ll be given a go over Wriddhiman Saha.
The Kiwis, on the other hand, outclassed the visitors in the ODIs, but more importantly, they did it in the absence of their first-choice pace attack.
The return of Boult, who has recovered from the injury he sustained on his right hand during the Boxing Day Test against Australia, will further bolster the Kiwi pace attack.
Meanwhile, a promising Kyle Jamieson, who was the man-of-match on his debut in the second ODI against India, could make his Test debut alongside Boult and Tim Southee and Matt Henry (who replaces Neil Wagner).
With conditions in favour of the seamers at the Basin Reserve, an astute customer like Boult can get the ball to move around while Jamieson too could prove to be a handful, given his tall frame and ability to extract extra bounce from the surface.
The Black Caps will go with only one spinning option Ajaz Patel, who will replace Mitchell Santner and look to make the most of his return. The Indian batsmen will be in for an uphill task.
However, the series will be historic for veteran Ross Taylor, who will step out for his 100th Test, thus becoming only the fourth Kiwi to do so after Brendon McCullum, Daniel Vettori, and Stephen Fleming.
Taylor, alongside Kane Williamson, played pivotal roles in the white-ball leg of the series, and will once again assume centrestage among the Kiwi batsmen.
Tom Latham displayed solid technique and finished with a match-winning 69 in the final ODI against India. In all likelihood, he will open the batting alongside Tom Blundell, who starred with a valiant 121 in the MCG Test against Australia. The remaining Test batting line-up, remains more or less the same, with stable positions for Henry Nichols and Colin de Grandhomme.
All in all, it promises to be a cracker of a contest. With both sides evenly matched in their bowling attacks and given that the pitch will be a paradise for them, it might come down to who has the better batsmen. And here, the famed Indian batting might just have that additional edge, given their heroics in the WTC thus far.
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