By the time this column appears in print, readers would have gotten to know the trajectory of the second Test between India and New Zealand that started at Christchurch from Saturday. If India fails to win the Test and concede the series, the New Zealand tour will be a failure. Virat Kohli’s team had been hammered by the Kiwis in the first Test at Wellington. Before that, they were clean-swept in the ODI series. India did win the T20 international series 5-0, but the red-ball leg of the tour is the most significant part here. This is their moment of reckoning.
Over the last two years, India has lost Test series in South Africa (2-1) and England (4-1). They won (2-1) their first-ever Test series in Australia all right, but the Aussies were second-string sans Steve Smith and David Warner. A series defeat in New Zealand will see India retain its ‘poor travellers’ tag.
India has been the world’s top-ranked Test side for over three years now. At the moment, it has 120 rating points in the ICC rankings, 12 more than second-placed Australia. In the ongoing ICC World Test Championship also, India tops the charts with 360 points. However, home conditions played a huge part in India’s Test consistency. Away from home, they have won against weaker teams, but the side is yet to inspire confidence on the road against tougher opponents. It’s one thing to talk up the team’s ability, walking the talk in tough conditions is a different ballgame altogether.
It will be improper to single out Kohli’s team for their below-par performance—in series that matters—overseas. This has been India’s problem all along—tigers at home, paper tigers abroad. Of course, there had been some glorious exceptions. Tiger Pataudi had led India to their first-ever Test series win in New Zealand in 1968. Ajit Wadekar’s team had won Test series in the West Indies and England in 1971. Kapil’s Devils won the 1983 World Cup that changed Indian cricket. They also won a Test series in England in 1986 (2-0) and came very close to winning a Test series in Australia a season previously. Sunil Gavaskar took India to the World Series Cup glory in 1985.
Sourav Ganguly’s team performed exceedingly well on the road at the turn of the century, drew a Test series in England and dominated an all-conquering Australian side Down Under. Ganguly also presided over India’s first-ever Test series win in Pakistan. Rahul Dravid guided India to Test series victories in the West Indies—Caribbean cricket still wasn’t in terminal decline then—and England. From that perspective, Kohli’s team has achieved very little, although their series win in Australia deserves an honourable mention. Mind, India also hasn’t won an ICC event for close to seven years now.
Earlier, India never had a potent fast-bowling attack. Now, they have a quartet of fast bowlers. Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav are top-class exponents of pace bowling irrespective of conditions. What ails the current Indian team is their batting when the going gets tough. This Indian team doesn’t have a Gavaskar or Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid or Virender Sehwag in its ranks.
Kohli is a fantastic player in his own right, but at the moment, he is going through a rare lean patch. But be it in South Africa or England or in the first Test against New Zealand, batting has failed to perform as a unit. Even in Australia, Cheteshwar Pujara stood tall and almost single-handedly blunted the opposition bowling. Given the experience that this Indian batting line-up has—Kohli, Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane —the collective failure for such an elongated period is surprising. Rohit Sharma’s calf injury came at a wrong time. He was sorely missed during the ODI series. Now an opener in Tests, India missed him at Wellington as well. On a green pitch, the New Zealand fast bowlers bounced out the Indian batsmen. Rohit, a magnificent hooker and puller of a cricket ball, could have taken the attack to the opposition.
Why do the majority of Indian batsmen go into a shell on pace-friendly pitches overseas? Kohli mentioned it during his post-match press conference at Wellington. Maybe it’s a confidence issue. Away from home, India lose their swagger and get caught in the quagmire of uncertainty. Picking Rishabh Pant over Wriddhiman Saha for the first Test highlighted that uncertainty. Wicketkeeping is a specialist’s job, and when the world’s best ‘keeper is asked to cool his heels, as the team management opts for a better batsman, then the approach reeks of uncertainty. It will be important for India to get rid of it at Christchurch.
Australia and England, the other two elite teams, haven’t done too badly on the road of late. Australia drew an Ashes series in England (2-2 ) last year. England recently bounced back to win a Test series (3-1) in South Africa. India can’t afford to lose the series in New Zealand.