On most days of the week, Feroz Shah Kotla, the fort, is a forgotten place. Few care to bother the man behind the ticket counter who dozes off to the whirr of the table fan and the hum of the flies. Once past the wrought iron gate, you may run into a bunch of kids from the nearby madrasa playing cricket, or spot a stray couple in search of privacy – but that, generally, is about it. No tourists. However, on one day out of seven, Thursday, the phlegmatic city warms up to Kotla. Hundreds flock from different parts of the Capital armed with incense sticks, oil lamps and all manner of wishes – jobs, love, offsprings, you name it. They devoutly place them before the jinns they believe inhabit the darkest bowels of these ruins. It’s their unshakable faith that an impassioned prayer from a pure heart will be answered.
It’s Thursday on October 20. All roads will lead to Feroz Shah Kotla, the stadium, where India are scheduled to play New Zealand in the second One-Day International of the five-match series. Perhaps, a set of foreign ‘tourists’ will do well to have their luxury coach pulled over a little before the ground, in front of the fort, and seek the jinns’ blessings as a last resort.
The Blackcaps have tried almost everything cricketing over the course of the wretched one month that has gone incrementally worse. Might as well seek some otherworldly intervention.
Feroz Shah Kotla was where New Zealand’s harrowing journey began last month. They criss-crossed north India – Delhi-Kanpur-Kolkata-Indore-Dharamshala – but all along Kane Williamson & Co. must have felt they were heading one way: down. In the warm-up match against Mumbai here, they were decidedly the second-best team. They proceeded to lose by 197 runs in Kanpur, by 178 runs in Kolkata and by 321 runs in Indore.
While, the visitors were competitive in patches, the long-format drubbing wasn’t surprising – facing India at home is arguably the toughest challenge in Test cricket. However, New Zealand were expected to put up an improved performance in the ODIs. Their white-ball record in recent times has been impressive, if not formidable. And India were without the services of at least six first-choice players, unavailable either due to injury or rest. Importantly, from New Zealand’s point of view, the two Rs – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – who tormented their batsmen in the Tests were missing.
Who, then, would have foreseen that New Zealand would be seven down for 65, done in primarily by the debutant all-rounder Hardik Pandya and the innocuous off-spin of the part-timer Kedar Jadhav. If not for Umesh Yadav, who spilled a simple Tim Southee offering in the deep, the day-nighter would likely have ended before dusk.
“The Indians bowled well in Dharamshala to start off. Especially their seamers. They set the tone, managed to get us down to four in first 10 over. They are a quality side and they are putting a lot of pressure on us at the moment and at the moment we don’t have the answers for their questions,” New Zealand pacer Trent Boult reasoned ahead of the second match when asked if the visitors’ scars from the Tests’ mauling hadn’t healed.
Indeed, India’s seamers were good, but by no means unplayable. It indicates that what had begun as a trial by spin and essentially a test of skill, appears to have transformed into a full-blown mindset issue. Indian fans would recognise these symptoms. They have such self-doubts creep into their team on many a foreign tour. For instance in 2011-12, India didn’t win a single international match on tour of England and, later, were whitewashed in the Tests in Australia and finished last in the subsequent Commonwealth Bank tri-series.
Like that miserable summer in England, where no Indian batsman save Rahul Dravid stepped up, New Zealand’s batting, too, has largely been a one-man affair. Apart from the opener Tom Latham, who has scored a half century in each of the five matches, including the practice match, few others have put their hands up consistently.
Martin Guptill has been a monumental disaster. Luke Ronchi flourished initially but floundered as the tour progressed. Even the usually reliable Kane Williamson, who sat out the Kolkata Test due to fever, has found that the body recovers faster than the mind. His lack of runs and New Zealand’s concurrent travails have brooked harsh comparisons with ex-skipper Brendon McCullum.
“Kane is a classy player and has been ranked as a top batsman for a reason. In a way, he has had pretty tough time walking into the role of captaincy. It has been a learning experience for the whole team to be honest. The way Brendon led the team, I don’t think anyone could do it as well as he did it. He set his own tone, we all know what kind of explosive batsman, he is,” Boult said, answering a question on the duo’s captaincy styles.
This pitting of the former skipper and the incumbent is a bit curious because as recently as seven months ago, on these very shores, Williamson was being universally hailed as the ideal successor to the inspirational McCullum after he had led the team into the World T20 semifinals. Those comparisons may yet die a quick death if Williamson comes into his own at Kotla tomorrow. It was here that his team’s unbeaten run in the World T20 ended. He would hope the venue snaps their losing streak, too. For that to happen, however, New Zealand would need to summon their fighting spirit. And at Kotla, they say, spirits wake up easily on Thursday.