Mumbai face a visiting Test team in a warm-up match ahead of a three Test series.
It evokes a strong nostalgia, but the three-day practice game between the reigning Ranji Trophy champions and New Zealand beginning at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium on Thursday is as far apart in terms of cast and context from that match against Australia as 1998 is from 2016 — which is to suggest centuries apart.
The Aditya Tare-led team, despite Rohit Sharma’s presence, are essentially a Mumbai B team, with many of their key players away on India A duty, or simply skipping the match. Unlike the juggernaut that was Mark Taylor’s Australia, New Zealand are a modest team, even though they often punch above their weight. Moreover this match is not a competitive first-class match portending a cracker of a series, but a rather lame game of the kind where all 30 members from both the sides are likely to feature over the next three days. No amount of runs or wickets for New Zealand here would signify much as the match will be played on a greenish track that will be the opposite — in all probability — of what we shall get to see February 22 onwards, as reports emanating from Kanpur have suggested.
For Mumbai, this Kotla fixture will be an ideal preparation for a domestic season that will be played on neutral venues. There is a not-so-subtle irony here. While the BCCI is aiming to negate the home advantage in its domestic competition, it’s leaving no stone unturned to optimise the same in international matches. Which basically means telling the touring teams this: Not only we will give you turning tracks for Test matches, we will also make sure you don’t get to prepare for that. A case in point is the Board President’s XI vs South Africans match last year. The South Africans gave away only four wickets to spin on a true wicket at the Brabourne stadium. But when the actual series began five days later, they went on to lose 61 in the next seven innings.
“I guess that is what home advantage is all about,” New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor said philosophically at the pre-match conference on Wednesday. “We are expecting the wickets to turn over here. We are not expecting the wickets to be like this one here at Kotla (fresh and green) in the Test matches.”
It will be unfair to single out India for trying to play to their advantage and deny the visiting teams any real chance of showing up prepared. It is almost an international convention in cricket these days. Two years ago, New Zealand themselves rolled out a flat track for India at a tour game in Whangarei — and the New Zealand XI elected to bat first in the two-day match — while the wickets for the Test matches at Auckland and Wellington turned out to be considerably juicer and quicker. Taylor acknowledges it. “Well, it is part and parcel of the way Test cricket is being played. It is no different when you come to New Zealand. We leave a little more grass on the wicket,” he said.
For the Blackcaps, however, any preparation is better than no preparation. They come from a tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa with a brief seven-day stay at home. From the early spring of the Southern hemisphere, they have flown headlong into the retreating but still simmering heat of North India. They are glad to get a warm-up, no matter the wicket.
“Last two tours, we did not even have a warm up game. So nice to have one this time. A warm up game is a warm up game. It is a chance to get out and play in Indian conditions, obviously it is a lot warmer than back home. So it is nice to get out and stretch your legs,” said Taylor. “We are expecting a tough match against Mumbai.”
The absence of Akhil Herwadkar, Shreyas Iyer, Shardul Thakur and Dhawal Kulkarni means it will be anything but. There is the left-arm spinner Vishal Dabholkar surely, but how much Mumbai are inclined to bowl him against the New Zealanders remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, India’s primary point of interest in this match will be Rohit Sharma. The selectors have refused to give up on the gifted Mumbai batsman in Test matches despite his poor run in the format — he has scored only one fifty in the last seven innings. In the recently concluded Duleep Trophy, he made a couple of 30s. A true wicket at the Kotla might help Rohit’s cause. It will also be a good opportunity for the likes of batsman Armaan Jaffer to showcase their talent against the World No.5 Test team.