“I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run overseas in such a short time,” Ravi Shastri quipped, shortly after India were thrashed 1-4 in a Test series in England. The remark was met with memes and trolls, but India went on to beat Australia in Australia later that year as Shastri and Co shut the mouths of critics.
The fact that two Australian giants – Steven Smith and David Warner – were absent from the series didn’t taint India’s remarkable achievement, but it would be far-fetched to assume that India’s overseas woes are a thing of the past, as the 10-wicket loss against New Zealand in the first Test in Wellington showed.
Eyeing the all-important win at the Christchurch Test, India can’t afford to waste time and need to regroup immediately to maintain their top spot in the World Test Championship.
Here’s a look at the pertinent questions India might need to answer before the Christchurch Test:
Prithvi Shaw’s rise, fall and comeback would make for a nice sinusoidal wave graph. But the beauty of it ends right there as the graph has come to a grinding halt at the zero line after the Wellington Test.
With his technical inadequacies exposed, Shaw’s approach was one of the reasons the Indian middle-order was exposed early in Wellington. Tim Southee and Trent Boult worked him over with outswing and inswing across both innings and India are left wondering if they should have played Shubman Gill.
The talented youngster has topped the run-charts in the long format games which India A played recently in New Zealand, making 423 runs in three innings at an average of 211.5, including a double century.
Would India dare to play Gill over Shaw after two failures in one Test? Would they try Cheteshwar Pujara at the top and probably ease Gill in at number three? They sure need a change in thinking at the top and Mayank Agarwal might just benefit from having a composed Pujara at the top.
Meanwhile, a final call will be taken on Prithvi Shaw’s status on Friday after the opener missed practice on Thursday due to a swollen ankle.
Break Cliches and Go All-Pace?
Since 2019, spinners have a grand total of 15 wickets in New Zealand in Test cricket. The pacers have 115 wickets within the same time frame, averaging 34.25, less than half of what the spinners average. New Zealand is a pace bowling paradise and nothing portrays this better than the numbers.
In the last five Test matches at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch, spinners have taken just 16 wickets and bowled just 255 overs in 23 innings, an average of just over 10 overs in an innings. Meanwhile, the pace bowlers have 148 wickets in these five Tests.
At Wellington, India’s lone spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, bowled 29 overs, taking three wickets while Ajaz Patel, who is likely to be replaced for the second Test, bowled six overs in all for New Zealand.
There's no questioning Ashwin's bowling and his evident improvement in overseas Tests but would he add more impact than another pace bowler in these seam-friendly conditions?
Jadeja’s Batting or Ashwin’s Bowling?
Assuming they do decide to stick with spin, India still have to make a choice between Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. While Ashwin was effective with the ball, he was also expected to shore up with the bat from the lower order. The off-spinner made a golden duck and a 11-ball four in the Wellington Test.
Jadeja’s recent form with the bat has been super impressive with the Saurashtra all-rounder making runs across formats. In fact, in his last eight overseas innings (starting 2018), Jadeja has three half-centuries and averages 44 with the bat.
Jadeja’s bowling average in these overseas games is less than two points away from Ashwin's and he strikes at a better rate than the Tamil Nadu spinner.
The cherry on top of this is the fact that New Zealand have just two left-handers in their top seven, one of whom is an opener. It negates the natural advantage an off-spinner will have against a southpaw. On the other hand, Jadeja offers turn-away from the right-handers, a category that includes the cream of New Zealand’s batting in Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and BJ Watling.
How Feasible Is the Pujara Way?
At Wellington, Cheteshwar Pujara took 75 balls to get to double figures. He was dismissed shortly afterwards, taking his career strike rate in New Zealand to a lowly 26.
It must be emphasised that he only averages 13-odd in the country. Pujara's ultra defensive approach was perhaps warranted, given that India had their backs against the wall, but if it eventually does not lead to runs, should India try and put pressure on the bowlers or stick to the approach and blunt the ball so that the batsmen coming in can go harder?
Virat Kohli's dismissal in the first innings, an expansive drive to a delivery well outside his off-stump suggests that the Pujara way could indeed be more effective. But the lack of intent might just allow the New Zealand seamers to dominate proceedings and stick to their plans with less pressure.
India will have to decide if their general mentality is to blunt the attack and then score runs or be positive from the word-go at the risk of losing a couple of wickets upfront.
Can Navdeep Saini Do a Jamieson?
Kyle Jamieson made a match-winning contribution with the bat – a 24-ball 25 and a half-century stand with Ross Taylor – on his ODI debut at Auckland earlier in the month.
In the same game, Navdeep Saini was the most economical Indian pacer and played a decent hand with the bat, making 45 in 49 balls to aid Ravindra Jadeja's bid to chase down the target.
While Jamieson went on to make a Test debut at Wellington and ran through India's top-order, Saini remains on the sidelines. Saini adds extra pace and bounce like Jamieson and though the ball does not come from as high a release point as Jamieson’s, Saini can threaten batsmen and give India the X-factor with the ball.
Can a four-prong pace attack featuring Saini too give India an edge when the pitch dries out and gets placid and easy for batting?
KL Rahul: The Long-Term Opening Question
Rohit Sharma is unavailable for this series and should return at the top of the order to partner Mayank Agarwal.
Shubman Gill has often been touted as more of a middle-order batsman than an opening batter.
Prithvi Shaw is likely to need some time to iron out his technical weaknesses before he can open again in conditions not-so-favourable to batsmen.
This leaves us with a vacant position for a back-up opener or even a mainstream one if the Rohit experiment does not click overseas. There's KL Rahul, a discarded Test opener, waiting, but the selectors had deemed him surplus to requirement despite his ominous form in the limited-overs leg of this tour.
Would India hesitate to go back to Rahul? He is perhaps the most technically equipped of the available options at the top of the order and barring a few rough patches of form, has done reasonably well in Tests, making five centuries and 11 half-centuries in 36 Tests.
This includes a ton in England against an attack featuring some of the best pace bowlers in the format.
How long can India keep a talent like him at bay? He sure needed a break given his form then, but now that he has returned to a purple patch, it’s perhaps time to reintegrate him to the Test setup.
(Rohit Sankar is a freelance cricket writer. He can be reached at @imRohit_SN. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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