India in New Zealand: Old vulnerability against the moving ball resurfaces
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India’s 0-2 setback in the Test series against New Zealand was surprising, the margin and manner of defeat even more so. Add the 0-3 whitewash in the ODIs, and the tour turned out to be a disaster despite the 5-0 victory in T20s.

Arguably, limited overs cricket is highly unpredictable, and that in ODIs, New Zealand had got the better of India in the World Cup too, so this was not something entirely unexpected. But the debacle in the Test series certainly was.

Hardships posed by green, seaming pitches, cold weather and blustery winds have always troubled Indian teams touring New Zealand in the past, particularly batsmen. However, this time around there was wide optimism that Virat Kohli & Co would not only cope well with the conditions, but also win the Test series.

For almost 36 months consecutively, India had been the number 1 ranked team in the World. Not just that, having beaten Australia in Australia in 2018 — a major feat considering it was the first time ever — it appeared Indian cricket had shrugged off the bogey of being unable to play overseas at optimum capability.

But this turned out to be completely misplaced. Old failings and weaknesses against the moving ball resurfaced in the batsmen, bowlers struggled to get New Zealand’s tail-enders quickly, conceding big advantage in both Tests, fielding oscillated between the brilliant and the mediocre.

All of this contributed to a terribly below par performance that made the series terribly one-sided. The keen edge that everyone had anticipated lacked in the contest. In fact, India went from bad to worse with each passing session. The first Test finished in less than four days, the second in well under three.

There was hardly any noteworthy performance by an Indian player barring Ishant Sharma’s five-wicket haul in the first Test, whereas New Zealand could count at least a dozen impactful contributions from their batsmen and bowlers.

While this dents the pride of several reputed Indian players, the more damaging is the collective failure to grab important points for the World Championship of cricket which the series offered: 60 for each Test. This would have virtually assured India a place in the final scheduled in mid-2021. Captain Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri had expressed confidence of winning at least one if not both Tests. This didn’t seem far-fetched given the team had won 7 Tests on the trot before flying to New Zealand. Moreover, the Kiwis had been whitewashed 0-3 in Australia some weeks earlier. There was little to suggest the travails to come.

In hindsight, what still perplexes is why and how India fared so poorly. What was it that went wrong?

As happens when a team fails on all fronts, it is difficult to point at one or two things.

Injury to Rohit Sharma, in the form of his life in the past 10-12 months, was a serious blow. This was compounded by the recurrence of Ishant’s injury, which also raises a serious question of judgment. How was he cleared by the National Cricket Academy if, as seems most likely, he hadn’t completely recovered?

But this was still not the primary factor in India’s debacle. On paper, India was still a far more experienced side, at least where batting is concerned, and should have been able to overcome the loss of Rohit Sharma.

Kohli losing the toss in both Tests was also a contributing factor in India’s. New Zealand’s fast bowlers got fresh pitches to bowl on and make life difficult for the batsmen. By the time the pitch eased on day 2 or 3, the fate of the match had been virtually decided.

Yet that too wasn’t the biggest reason in deciding the series. Were the Indian players jaded because of work overload? Were they complacent, perhaps even callous?

All of the above could have contributed to the debacle. But what hurt India most was the failure of the top guns — Kohli, Pujara and Rahane in batting, Bumrah and Shami in bowling — to hit peak form which allowed the Kiwis both relief and opportunity to turn the tables on a higher ranked side.

That so many high quality batsmen should hit a trough concurrently is an unusual happening. That even the support cast of talented youngsters like Prithvi Shaw, Hanuma Vihari, Rishabh Pant and Mayank Agarwal should also not be able to rise to the occasion is extraordinary.

Finally, bowlers like Bumrah and Shami, world beaters till the other day, also unable to swing the contests in India’s favour — though they did have some fine, probing spells — becomes inexplicable.

Add to this some quirky selections: in-form KL Rahul not being selected for the Tests and Pant being preferred over the more skillful Wriddhiman Saha who had made such an impressive return to international cricket a few months back, hurt India’s prospects.

All of this, of course, comes from the benefit of hindsight. Nonetheless, the defeat shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet by bombast and puerile rationalisations. There are lessons from this tour which, if not learnt swiftly, could cost the Indian team dear in the next 15 months leading up to the World Championship of Cricket final.

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.

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