After inflicting and then suffering a whitewash in New Zealand, Virat Kohli’s Indian side are getting ready for the last stage of their New Zealand tour. The two-Test series is extremely crucial for the Indian Test team. They may have beaten Australia in Australia, but beating the New Zealand team could be more difficult than getting the better of that depleted Aussie side.
The return of Trent Boult and Neil Wagner to the unit, as well as the good form of Tim Southee make the Kiwis a formidable team. Add to that the undeniable class of Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson, the great quality of batsmen like Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls, and the indefatigable BJ Watling, and you have a very capable team.
A lot would depend again on the Indian bowling attack and the leader of their batting - Kohli. The progress of the Indian Test team is judged by their performances in four non-subcontinental countries – England, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. Under Kohli, India lost in South Africa and England while winning in Australia.
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So, how good the team really is will be determined to a large extent from this series. Let’s now look at the five most important elements in the contest. They will decide the fate of the series and will also have a bearing on the future of the two teams.
Real test for Indian openers
Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw have success under their belts in home conditions. The former even got runs in Australia. But at the moment, few places are as tough for openers as New Zealand. With the brilliance of Boult and Southee, along with the canniness of Colin de Grandhomme, the Indian openers will have to go through a severe test of their technique.
India would definitely miss Rohit Sharma, not necessarily because of his quality, but because this tour, that would have been his first as a Test opener, would have been ideal to see whether he is capable of dealing with top-quality seam bowlers outside India. With him not playing, that question will remain hanging.
In his absence, both Shaw and Agarwal will have an opportunity to prove their credentials. With just two matches in the series, it’s unlikely that Shubman Gill would get an opportunity. But if he does, he too would have a golden opportunity to make a mark.
How Indian openers perform would be crucial in determining the way this series goes.
Will Blundell solve Kiwis’ opening problem?
Tom Latham has established himself as a very consistent and reliable opener. But he has been struggling to find a decent partner. Jeet Raval was given several opportunities but he couldn’t deliver.
However, in the last Test in Australia, reserve wicket-keeper-batsman Tom Blundell opened the innings and scored a brilliant hundred. Now the spotlight would be on him to see whether he can hold on to that position.
With India possessing a great line-up with bowlers like Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, and Umesh Yadav, Blundell would have to be at the top of his game to succeed. He will get to play both matches. If he even gets a half-century in one of the innings, that is likely to continue his run in the side.
However, if he fails, the New Zealand selectors will be back hunting for an opening partner for Latham. Therefore, his success is badly needed by the home side. Also, as good as the hundred in Australia was, Blundell was dropped on more than one occasion. So, there is still a bit of doubt about his quality. Let’s see how he fares.
For the umpteenth time, Ravichandran Ashwin’s abilities on unhelpful non-subcontinental pitches would be tested. He is yet to pick up a five-wicket haul outside Asia, barring West Indies. He came close to it in 2018 in South Africa and Australia but couldn’t quite push on.
In fact, in 2018, there were three Tests, one each in Centurion, Southampton, and Adelaide, where, on helpful pitches, he was expected to deliver the killer blow. But he failed. Now, if he plays, it would be his first outing in New Zealand. His performance would be keenly watched. Also, he is getting close to 400 Test wickets.
The record for getting fastest to this mark lies with Muttiah Muralitharan (72 Tests). Ashwin may not break that record but he can certainly beat Richard Hadlee, who is at second position (80 Tests). A good haul of wickets in this series would be very helpful.
On the other hand, if Jadeja is picked instead of Ashwin, he too would be under the pressure to prove himself. On the last tour of New Zealand, he got pummeled by Brendon McCullum. Though he does have a five-wicket haul in South Africa, that wasn’t a match-winning performance. So, Jadeja too has a point to prove.
And we are back to the wicket-keeping slot in the Indian team. In the home season, this was snatched from Rishabh Pant by Wriddhiman Saha. But the Bengal wicket-keeper may not be a certainty going into this series.
Pant has hundreds in Australia and England, albeit on flat pitches. This record of his could push the Indian team management to bring the Delhi keeper back into the Indian side. There is also the possibility of him playing as a batsman alone.
India do have a opening at no.6 in their batting line-up. The contenders for this spot are Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Ravindra Jadeja, and Pant himself. Those two overseas hundreds that he has may well tilt the balance in his favour.
However, one must not completely overlook the batting credentials of Saha. In 2016, he made some extremely valuable contributions with the bat, including a brilliant hundred in West Indies where he rescued his team, along with Ashwin from a dire situation.
He also scored fifties in each innings of a home Test against New Zealand where the conditions were tough for batting. So, it’s quite possible that India repose their faith in Saha and leave Pant out.
New Zealand was known as a country where swing bowlers get some help. However, in recent times, despite the success of Boult, pitches there have become increasingly flat. One can go back to India’s last Test series in the country.
The first Test saw India chasing down a target around 400 while the second saw New Zealand saving the game with a huge total in their second innings which featured a triple hundred by Brendon McCullum.
That match was played at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, the venue for the first match of this series. In the 2014 series, a lot of grass was left on the pitch to help New Zealand seamers. However, the plan backfired as India put the Kiwis in and bowled them out for a low score.
But then the pitch kept becoming flatter and eventually the game petered out to a very high-scoring draw. It’s hard to see what the curators can do to change what seems to be the basic nature of the wicket.
New Zealand would definitely want seamer-friendly pitches as they would consider it their best chance for defeating India. England managed to win their home series against Kohli’s team 4-1 in similar conditions. But there is no certainty that the pitches would be moulded as per the wishes of Williamson and company.