India vs New Zealand: Spinners the key as Virat Kohli and co aim to extend domination on home soil
India and New Zealand lock horns in a three-Test battle, starting Thursday at the Green Park in Kanpur, with the hosts tipped as favourites.
The time has arrived for the vociferous Indian cricket fans to get their voices back as Virat Kohli and co prepare themselves for what is the first hurdle in a marathon home Test season.
With the first match of the three-Test series against New Zealand starting Thursday, the focus will not only be on regaining their position at the top of the Test rankings, which they had recently lost to Pakistan, but also to maintain their dominance on home soil, having blanked the South Africans 3-0 in their last assignment as hosts in the format.
For the visiting New Zealand side however, the upcoming series is not just a chance for them to conquer the ‘final frontier’ — winning a Test series on Indian soil, but it will also be an opportunity for Kane Williamson 'the leader' to boost his captaincy record by achieving his first Test series win against a higher-ranked side.
Let’s not forget New Zealand’s woeful record in India. The Black Caps have won just two Tests here, with the last one coming nearly three decades ago, the trend of which they would like to amend this series.
Despite the resurgence that the Black Caps have displayed in the last two years — especially around the ICC World Cup 2015, the Indians are firm favourites going into the series.
Afterall, the challenge of defeating India in a Test series in the its backyard is something that few have successfully accomplished in the past.
To justify India’s favourites tag for the upcoming series is the vast batting arsenal that they possess, with skipper Virat Kohli at the helm of it. Kohli’s responsibilities as the captain, something that he has been executing wonderfully so far since taking over the role after MS Dhoni’s retirement, has barely affected his mind-boggling run of form with the bat.
While Kohli remains the heart of the batting line-up, the support cast of KL Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Wriddhiman Saha and even Ravichandran Ashwin makes it look even more formidable. There is intense competition for a spot in the batting line-up which might be a selection headache for the captain but in a way, it's a good sign for Indian cricket. Recently, Rahul got a chance during the tour of West Indies in the second Test because of an injury to Vijay and he and cashed in on the opportunity big time with a career-best of 158 at Jamaica.
Pujara’s form had been a source of worry on the tour of the Caribbean, where his strokes were marked by a sheer lack of confidence. However, his exploits in the recently-concluded Duleep Trophy would have done his self-belief a world of good.
But it is the bowling attack, especially the spin trio in Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra that will be the biggest source of worry for the Black Caps.
Ashwin, currently the third-best Test bowler in the world as well as the best all-rounder in the format, shared 54 wickets with Jadeja as the Indians mauled the hapless Proteas on rank-turners last year and he's become one of the most dangerous spinners in the world.
Add Jadeja’s accuracy, Amit Mishra’s astute mixtures as well as the wealth of experience that head coach and spin legend Anil Kumble possesses, and the hosts have a lethal cocktail ready for their opponents.
In the pace department, the Indians were dealt with a blow with Ishant Sharma being ruled out of the first Test due to a bout of chikungunya. Which makes Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami the likely seamers in the XI at the start of the series, should Kohli choose to stick to his highly-favoured five-bowler theory.
As far as spin is concerned, New Zealand coach Mike Hesson has done his homework when it comes to preparing his side for the conditions, and has shown an incline in fielding three spinners for the first Test.
“Seamers, if anything, might bowl two-three overs up front and it's more likely they're going to have spin at one end to start with if they're going to play three of them,” Hesson was quoted as saying at a press conference ahead of the team’s departure to India.
The Black Caps can take some confidence from the fact that they beat India in their own backyard in World T20 in Nagpur this year and it was the spin duo of Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi that helped the Kiwis beat India at their own game.
However, Test cricket is a different ball-game altogether. Together with Mark Craig, who had a good outing in the UAE against Pakistan in 2014-15, the three spinners should be able to give a tough challenge to a strong Indian batting lineup.
As far as reverse swing is concerned, a hint of which is expected to be there in the first Test, the tourists could utilise the services of Neil Wagner, who was destructive in South Africa and could come in handy in India as well. The exit of Tim Southee from the Tests due to an ankle injury will be a massive blow, especially due to his experience in these conditions, and might lead to a bit of a debate over Trent Boult’s new-ball partner.
The real challenge however, will be for the batsmen, when they face the might of the Indian spin department. While the rock-solid Kane Williamson - one of the best players of spin in the world right now - is expected to lead from the front, a lot will depend on how the likes of Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Ross Taylor adjust to the conditions.
While Latham’s fifty on a flat deck in the warm-up in Delhi is a positive sign, Guptill's struggle in his recent outings is a source of concern. His position as Test opener faces serious threat after Luke Ronchi’s century in the practice match, but he is expected to open the innings in Kanpur.
The first Test of the series also marks India’s 500th match in the format, which will make them only the fourth side to have reached the milestone.
Both sides are riding on a lot of expectations ahead of the series. India are perhaps enjoying arguable their most dominant form in a long time, while the New Zealand squad for this series has been tipped as the one that truly can break the winless streak in India. All will depend on how well the New Zealand batsmen can play the spinners. If they crack the spin code, there is every chance they can script history this time around.
India: Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane (vc), Wriddhiman Saha (wk), KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay, Rohit Sharma, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Shikhar Dhawan, Amit Mishra, Umesh Yadav.
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (c), BJ Watling (wk), Luke Ronchi (wk) , Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Mark Craig, Martin Guptill, Tom Latham, Jimmy Neesham, Henry Nicholls, Mitchell Santner, Ish Sodhi, Matt Henry, Ross Taylor, Neil Wagner.
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