New Zealand has a great record at home. They invent a completely different gear while playing in their backyard, in comparison to what they end up doing elsewhere. And it is with this fact as a backdrop India embarks on yet another tour of the Kiwi Land. It is here in 2009, India pulled of one of the rarest of rare abroad glories (which for some funny reason, never makes its presence felt in the conversations centering on “India poor overseas travellers”). It was a competent Kiwi side with all their modern top talent playing, that India staved off and in the process achieved the rare feat. It is here we saw one of the many resilient examples of an India side playing for time to save a test match (Following on after a first innings deficit of 314 in reply to a mammoth 619 by the Kiwis, India batted 180 overs to save the game scoring 476 runs, where Gautam Gambhir batted for 73 overs for his dogged 137).
On my book, this was one of the defining moments of India’s rise as a cricket team, and underlined the era of Kirsten and Upton, that presented many such glorious moments, where our team, with their backs to the wall, didn’t back down and emerged unscathed.
Situation is different now. Kiwis, are on an upsurge, and India searching for an identity for its new look team. With 4 days to go for the battle to begin (and for us in India desperately struggling to adjust to the unearthly hours of these games), I am trying to take a introspective look at some of the elements of this battle (my focus is only on the ODI scheme of things for the moment):
Conditions. Mike Hesson the NZ coach, has called for “extending no favors to the Indian Team” and asking the grounds men to come up with Green tops that suit his team. And that is understandable. The mauling they got the last time they came visiting us only pushes their case for making conditions more closer to home for their side. However, if the ongoing series with West Indies, is any indication the conditions are mixed (and I doubt in this short span the curators will pull out green tops out of the proverbial hat). Having said that, strange things do happen. Let’s go by Hesson’s ask, and hope the conditions will be green, chilly, rainy – ideal for movement and speed.
(However, for a moment, if I deviate from Hesson’s dictat and go by what has historically happened – Napier has traditionally been a batting beauty (with Kiwis having an enviably good winning record), Auckland is awkward (tends to swing and bounce), Christchurch and Hamilton are mixed bags (We scored heavily at Christchurch last time around – 390+ in 50 overs).)
Another added dimension in New Zealand is the aspect that none of the grounds are truly round in shape. Many of these grounds get used for different sports and have all sort of shapes and sizes. For example Auckland resembles a baseball diamond in shape, and can flummox the Captains (visiting ones, of course) completely when it comes to field placements and cutting corners etc. It will be interesting to see if that can be balanced by a good fielding outfit (that our team seems to be).
The weather too will be an important component to the mix. It’s going to be windy, chilly sprinkled with rains and stoppages. Its critical our boys, get themselves acclimatized at the earliest before the first ball is bowled at Napier.
Opposition. This is a seriously good Kiwi side. They have been rebuilding for a while now and as co-host for the 2015 WC, there is a positive focus with which they have gone about building an outfit that plays its cricket aggressively and with a certain combative spirit
- Batting. When I see a line up laced with names like McCullum, Guptil, Ryder, Williamson, Taylor, Ronchi and the new sensation Corey Anderson, we are talking of a good batting outfit. These folks play extremely well at home. For me the danger man is Ryder – who seems to have a measure of the Indian attack. His amazing story of recovering from a near fatal mishap to doing what he does the best – marauding & terrorizing bowlers, is fast becoming a stuff of legend. I expect them to get off the blocks quickly, and India will have to carefully plan against this.
- Bowling. The Home team’s composition can be a huge give away on how the conditions of play are going to be. And when I look at the Kiwi bowling attack, there is a heavy dose of speed and seam – Southee, Milne, Mills, McClenaghan, Neesham, with just Nathan McCullum as a Spinner (who on my book is atmost a crafty one day bowler). The others are part timers in Williamson, Taylor and Guptil. This shows what they are betting their aces on. With Dan Vettori, calling it quits, NZ cricket is putting all their eggs in the speed basket.
West Indies, just drew the ODI series, and if we take a leaf from their work – there is an opportunity for our boys here. While their speed is their key and a lot of chatter is surrounding this new 150K sensation, Milne, it may be tad one-dimensional an attack. And if India can negate this expertly, there may be a great opportunity for our boys.
Our Composition. That brings us to the important question of what composition should we go by. Here I am hoping the conditions will play an important role, over the tried and tested stupidity. MS Dhoni is a competent captain, however tends to get married to his fixed idiosyncrasies, which by the time rectified, can be a bit too late. This is a seam friendly nation and our endeavor should be to field our best seamers (& Pacers, if I may), initially with one spinner. For me the combination that can be effective is Dhawan, Sharma, Kohli, Rahane, Raina, MS, Jadeja, Bhuvi, Shami, Pandey, Binny
I know this is an impossible team (knowing MS – Ashwin, Ishant will find their way in). But I think the above team has enough seamers (4) and spinners (1 – ½) to be able to cause some impact. I don’t see Ashwin succeeding against Ryder and Taylor. The key will be to start strong, betting on our strength in those conditions. And I feel this team has the wherewithal to do that.
Leadership. Last time when we played in NZ, MS Dhoni led from the front in the ODIs with his bat (Like he has been doing for almost 7 years now). It will not be a surprise if the trend continues – though I expect our top order coming good consistently. Its his captaincy that I am curious to see. Will he move away from the oft beaten path and try “horses for courses” approach, will there be more communication with his bowlers (now that majority of them are either rookies or graduating from being a rookie), will he continue to accept the “200-at-40-overs-330-at-50” mayhem that our bowling has been facing consistently over the past 12 months or will he demand performance from his boys.. He is an exceptional leader when it comes to the shorter format (for the longer format I have a different opinion, that is for some other day/post), and a little more active and proactive approach will only galvanize this bunch to unearth a hidden potential. We let the games meander in the ODIs in SA. Wrong selections costed us the first couple of games, and too much faith is Ashwin’s intelligence (which I am seriously questioning off late), proved fatal.
I also, call for a little more accountability for Joe Dawes, who in his couple of years as the bowling coach has done nothing of repute that guarantees his paycheck. If ever his presence is needed its now in these overseas tours, where his words and work will / can add so much shine to our upcoming band of bowlers. A bowling coach has to be the catalyst helping bowlers have clarity of thinking, specific plans and discipline, etc. I don’t see anything (except for Shami, who for me has learnt most of his art and discipline at Bengal or KKR dugouts, and not under Dawes’s care). If our bowlers need to come good, they will need to think like Kiwis, and for that they need acclimatize and get adjusted to the conditions and tracks fast. Dawes can play a “make or break” role here.
If Hesson’s dictat is adhered to, there is a possibility we will witness, some prodigious swing and this will call for Duncan Fletcher’s handiwork to help batsmen play late, with soft hands and not go hell for leather. (Especially Dhawan, Raina etc.).
Final word. One way or the other this is going to be a fascinating tour. Two nations trying to rebuild their cricketing outfit with some seriously good talent on display is certainly a mouthwatering proposition. India’s 50 over performance has been nothing short of exemplary, however the recent SA debacle must be rankling them no end and they would be keen to set the record right (and continue their reign as the top of the pile) and NZ, on the other hand will be nursing the shared result from the recently concluded series with the WI, and will be keen to record an outright win. It’s good to see we will have a 5 match series which gives both the teams enough time to course correct if they had to face a tricky start. It also promises a well fought contest that will eke out the best from these two very talented outfits.
And, we the hopeless lovers of the game, wait with bated breath to embark on yet another cricketing junket, that promises to (quite literally), give us some Sleepless Nights with those 2 am starts.