Standing on a pebble beach of the wind-swept Napier, staring at a passive-aggressive Pacific Ocean, it is, and feels like, the edge of civilisation. A final frontier. New Zealand is capable of having such an effect on a first-timer.
For the Indian cricket team, too, New Zealand was one such place for a long time. It was surprising because on their first-ever trip to these shores, under Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi in 1967-68, history was made as India won 3-1. This history, to invoke a mandatory Lord of the Rings reference, “became legend, legend became myth”, as lossespiled up in coming years.
It gave birth to more myths, some of them don’t have much truth but still persist in our imagination: such as green-carpet tracks and juicy pitches.
But before we analyse here and now, we ought to trace the origins of these notions, which weren’t always mere notions. When New Zealand in New Zealand were such a thorn in the Indian flesh that they perhaps still feel the prick.
It started with the final match of the second tour. Richard Hadlee’s 11/58 in the third Test in 1976 made such a dent in Indian batsmen’s confidence that it would last, and indeed grow bigger, over the next three decades. They would not win Test or ODI series here in five attempts, even as the legend of near unplayable New Zealand tracks came into being and was reinforced.
Then in 2002-03, the Indians, teetering over the brink on a few previous tours, finally fell into an abyss. Despite having set sail with a batting cast to rival a Hollywood multi-starrer, they failed to go past 200 in four Test innings. Or even in the subsequent five ODIs.
Six years later, it was with these baggages and doubts that Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Co reached Napier to play the first ODI. It was team that had learned to win away, and among its achievements was the CB Tri-Series victory in Australia a year before. It was a team that was shaping up to be the world champion it would become in two years’ time. So, on March 3, 2009, on a surprisingly favourable strip at McLean Park, India’s top order launched a rare assault on the Kiwi bowlers. India won the match by 53 runs, gathered momentum and crushed the Black Caps 3-1 for their first-ever ODI series win in the country. Their march continued relentlessly in the Tests and India won the series 1-0, the first in 42 years.
Change of fortunes
New Zealand’s spell was broken. A few commentators, however, suggest that New Zealand themselves broke the spell. They broke it for the BCCI, they allege. They say, after the 2002-03 disaster, the BCCI made its displeasure over the wickets used evident to New Zealand Cricket, an objection that didn’t go unheeded the next time India visited. The green carpet was gone, the drop-in pitches were custom-built for the cherry to come nicely on.
Writing in the New Zealand Herald, and exhorting New Zealand to revert to green pitches, former Black Cap Mark Richardson asked the home team to “draw the line at creating pitches to suit them.”
“It appears, for small fry like us, playing India is like playing your boss at golf – do and say the right things but don’t beat them. It’s okay for their perceived peers in Australia and England to beat them but to put them on seaming wickets here in New Zealand and stuffing them would be cricket’s equivalent of a kamikaze mission – successful, yes, but ultimately fatal,” he wrote in his column for the paper.
“I say water up, green up, stand up and stuff them up this summer.”
With the series being played not as much with the 2015 World Cup in focus as it is with the IPL7 auction in mind, not all New Zealand players would themselves agree with Richardson. They stand more to lose here if the wickets are watered and greened up. Batsman Corey Anderson has potentially added a couple of zeroes to their bank balance not by batting on the kind of wickets that Richardson is suggesting, but by whacking about in small parks, on belters. Knowing that the IPL scouts will be waking up early and watching them bat, Anderson will hope to reproduce such form once more, while Guptill and Williamson will aim to emulate him. Likewise, there’s also a lot at stake for other New Zealand players who have not been retained: the McCullum bothers, Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Luke Ronchi. A knock or two in this series will do them a world of good. On the other hand, single-digit scores against Stuart Binny or Ishwar Pandey may mean paycuts or getting unsold.
On their toes
India, meanwhile, seem to have come prepared. The South Africa exposure must have prepared them for bowler friendly wickets, while the early arrival here also showed they are taking the series seriously. They don’t have too many IPL worries; for many of them it’s an opportunity to impress and stay in the mix for the Asia Cup, World T20 and, of course, the ODI World Cup next year.
India play two matches here: against Ireland in Hamilton and against Zimbabwe at Auckland. Normally, these matches won’t give India sleepless nights, but given they are the final matches of their group stage, these fixtures may become crucial should anything go wrong in the Australia leg .
It could leave India on the edge both geographically and metaphorically.