The Feroz Shah Kotla pitch was nowhere near the kind that is expected to beat Green Park. By Sunday, though, it had deteriorated enough to offer a bit of turn and inconsistent bounce. And while Mumbai’s spin attack isn’t the most threatening in domestic cricket, they did create a few problems for New Zealand, who were dismissed for 235 in the second innings.
You can’t see a warm-up match through the lens of numbers. They don’t always tell the whole story — though some do, but more on that later. New Zealand lost eight wickets to spin. But most of their batsmen were out trying to hit big shots — three were stumped. Perhaps they wanted to see if they can hit their way out of trouble on turners. Among those who didn’t bat were New Zealand’s key batsmen Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor while Tom Latham retired at 25 as six tail-enders got batting practice, some of them not at their usual positions. Mitchell Santner came one-down and Doug Bracewell two-down while Trent Boult was sent ahead of BJWatling and Latham.
It was evident that the visiting team wanted to test out their lower order, which becomes critical in low-scoring matches. As was the case in the India-South Africa Test series last year. In all three matches that were completed, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin bailed the team out after the top order had collapsed. Jadeja’s 38 and Ashwin’s 20 not out was the difference between a sub-150 score and making 201 in the first innings of the first Test at Mohali.
On the dustbowl in Nagpur, Jadeja made 34 after walking in at 125/6. In New Delhi, Jadeja (24) and Ashwin (56) helped Ajinkya Rahane rebuild the innings after the home side had been reduced to 139/6. India would end up 334 in the first innings. Contributions like these from the lower order can deflate any team and shift the momentum of the match as well as the series.
Unlike South Africa, who on paper had a far superior top order, New Zealand have only Williamson — and to an extent Taylor — who looks technically and mentally equipped to offer some resistance to the Indian spinners. Therefore, the Blackcaps would need every bit of contribution from their tailenders. “They are very capable of doing that. In the Test matches, we are going to need everyone to contribute to win games,” said Luke Ronchi, who made 107 out of 235, after the match. “So the more you can gain from this sort of situation, the more you can bat with them and talk to them while they are batting, you can learn some things, you might be able to teach a few things as well,” he added.
Even at New Zealand’s nets, this intent was evident. Williamson would bat alongside a tailender in order to simulate situations that might come to pass in the Tests. Ronchi stitched together a couple of partnerships, with Bracewell and Boult, after Martin Guptill and Santner got out early. Guptill brings us to the numbers that do tell the story. The burly opener was out for 0 in the second innings after making 15 in the first innings. Guptill has been a bit like Rohit Sharma of late — sensational in limited-overs but out of his depth in Test cricket. He was expected to step up and share a bit of Williamson and Taylor’s workload, all the more since New Zealand have lost out on an impactful batsman in Brendon McCullum.
However, he has frequently ended up making them bat rather early in matches. In the wake of his poor run and India’s turning pitches, New Zealand coach Mike Hesson indicated he could employ Luke Ronchi, who is a more of a limited-overs batsman and a middle-order option, as a back-up opener. “It’s not your traditional New Zealand opener that you require over there; you need guys who can score against spin, find ways to rotate the strike and keep the game moving. It does [bring Ronchi into the mix]. Luke’s there as a back-up batsman as well as a back-up keeper. His ability against spin certainly makes him an option,” Hesson was quoted as saying by stuff.co.nz before the team left New Zealand.
Ronchi, who didn’t get to bat in the first innings, certainly bolstered his chances. Using his feet against the spinners, he played a knock of authority. He drove and cut confidently and used the lofted shot emphatically to put the bowlers under pressure. Shots are fine, but to really frustrate a spinner, you need singles.
“My game plan (against spin) is to try and get off strike. With the field in, then I try to hit them out. A couple over the top (big hits) and there are a few more gaps. Obviously it is not going to work all times. I think the best way to bat sometimes is to be at the other end,” Ronchi explained.
So has he done enough to make the team sheet for the first Test? “It was just a position given to me for the second innings, to go out and open. I just wanted to have a hit and do as best as I possibly could. If it comes up, I would certainly not say no, but you never know what Hess and Kane are thinking. If I have to bat at 11, I’d be happy to do that as well.”