India havent won a Test match in New Zealand since 1976,have never won a bilateral one-day series and last won a Test series in 1968. These are daunting Himalayan numbers. If you like fables that is the equivalent of being up against a mighty hirsute giant who cracks bones for a pastime. Or like playing against six Viv Richards and four Malcolm Marshalls. Patently that is not the case. And yet New Zealand seems impregnable,a fortress. Outstanding players have gone there and returned empty handed. There must be a reason.
Maybe India dont play in New Zealand enough. Since 1976 when Erapalli Prasanna used a drying pitch beautifully in Auckland,India have played no more than 11 Test matches. That is a ridiculous number. Inevitably too there have been large intervals between tours; in fact the last time India played a three Test series there was in 1990. Often it means that players dont know enough about the conditions and by the time they get to terms with them the series is over and the record has taken another dent.
Having said that,however true that might be,it is not a good enough reason and so we must dig a bit deeper. Two possibilities present themselves. I fear that part of it has to do with looking upon New Zealand as just another tour. There is little folklore about Indian teams visiting there in spite of the fact that Indias first series win overseas came in New Zealand. There is little of the excitement associated with going to England or Australia or Pakistan; or for that matter South Africa. Maybe it is because we do not see a lot of cricket from there,maybe the time difference is a factor or maybe,it is just not exciting enough. New Zealand,maybe,is a bit like a number six batsman who hangs in there,bats with the tail and returns 36 not out. Effective but not exciting.
I suspect New Zealand dont mind that too much and actually use it to their advantage. Over the years they have produced some fine cricketers; not Hadlee and Crowe,they were legends,but others who were very good. And we are not even talking about the John Wrights,the Andrew Jones,the Ian Smiths,the Stephen Flemings,the Shane Bonds in conditions as they exist there,the likes of Dion Nash,Gavin Larsen,Darryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram were very effective and you under-estimated them at your own peril. They were like snipers who knew their terrain and before you knew it you were ambushed.
So why should it be any different this time? For two or three reasons. India now have the bowling to use the conditions. Zaheer Khan is bowling beautifully,Ishant Sharma will love the conditions there and there is decent back up bowling. That is critical. The third seamer,as Javagal Srinath recently talked about,can be unheralded but crucial. Munaf Patel would be just right for that role provided between him and the BCCI,somebody can find out what lies within that body. But Dhawal Kulkarni is a very good find as well,eager and nippy.
The other reason is that India play the one-dayers first and often pitches in these games dont sway matches too much. Indias key players will have spent enough time there by the time the Test matches come around and there isnt a lot of difference between the two teams now. The challenge though will lie with people like Yuvraj,Raina and Gambhir getting acclimatised quickly. They are the bold,aggressive face of Indian batting and that has always been Indias stronger arm.
If there is a deficiency at all in this one-day team it lies in the fact that neither of the top six bowl seam up. The back up bowlers therefore,Sehwag,Yuvraj,Yusuf Pathan,even Raina,so useful to Dhoni,are more likely to be effective in slower,sub-continental conditions and so India might well be tempted to go in with four seamers. It will mean Irfan Pathan rather than Yusuf batting at number seven or in case Dhoni likes the look of both of them,seeing them at number six and seven.
But at least Dhoni has this flexibility. And he has a happy team that is enjoying itself. They can do much to change that poor record.