Updated: February 20, 2020 8:26:22 am
Deceived by Ishant Sharma’s in-ducker that swung into his pads and brushed the inside half of his bat, Virat Kohli stared suspiciously at the practice pitch for a fleeting second and queried to the bowler: “Was it you or the pitch?” Ishant’s reply was a gingery smile as if Kohli’s had cast aspersions on his skills before he strolled up to him and explained in detail.
A few balls later, he beat the skipper again, this time the outside edge with one that deviated away off the surface. Kohli went mid-pitch and sought the specifics of the delivery, like whether he had covered off-stump, or whether he should have left it.
In the adjacent nets, Ajinkya Rahane was taking throw-downs under the watch of batting coach Vikram Rathour, to whom he would constantly walk up and consult about alignment and footwork, whether he was feeling for balls that he could have otherwise left.
Beside him, Cheteshwar Pujara, after every stroke, was preoccupied with leaving as many deliveries as possible and would ask the bowlers to continuously pound the fifth-sixth stump line, interchanging between good and full-lengths.
The bowlers, in turn, would ask batsmen, whether they were too full or short. Jasprit Bumrah resorted to his old method of keeping a pair of shoes on the areas of the strip he wanted to hit. The colour of the practice wickets was not menacing green but still abetting movement off the surface, perhaps a prelude to things to come.
In many ways, it was a markedly different net session, wherein everyone was chatty and vocal, keenly seeking feedback and making mental notes on how they should bat. Beneath the veneer of bantering, there was raw intensity and urgency about the nets, tucked in a corner of the magisterial Basin Reserve, most of its grand structure still untainted by modernity. There was a feeling of plunging one’s first steps on an alien shore.
Basin Reserve and Wellington can exaggerate the feeling of unfamiliarity, from the chilly wind incessantly blowing into the face, to the weather that toggles between bright sunshine and depressing gloominess, mountain on one side and beaches on the other, and a deviously green strip staring at them. At one moment, one feels like pulling over a jumper, but at the next feel like ripping off the shirt.
The ground is bang in the middle of the city and beside the main road, yet an eerie silence engulfs the arena. Though half of the team has been in the country for a month plying white-ball cricket, the red-ball version has suddenly infused a sense of intrigue.
It’s understandable. Unlike Australia and England, India’s full-fledged series to New Zealand are rare. The last time was six years ago, for a two-Test series which got over even before Indian players had got accustomed to the conditions.
The last time India encountered New Zealand in any series was four years ago. They are an adversary India’s experienced batting trio of Kohli, Pujara,and Rahane has faced the least. All three have featured in just two Tests in this country. Their corresponding numbers in Australia read 12, 7 and 8. In England, they have tallied 10, 9 and 10.
Among the players in the current squad, Ishant has picked the most Test caps in New Zealand (five). As many as six of New Zealand’s potential eleven have never played a Test against India, home or away.
Kohli dwells on the positive side. “They are here without any baggage of the past, as they haven’t failed here in the past. A bunch of new guys, they play with a lot of fearlessness and something that can motivate the whole team and give us the starts that we want and not be intimidated by the opposition in any manner,” he observed.
The conditions offer a different challenge for the skippers too. “The wind, in this stadium, more than any other stadium in the world, plays a massive role. Choosing bowlers accordingly, who bowls into the wind, who bowls with the wind. These are the kind of things you have to think as a captain. If the breeze is blowing across the stadium, then who is more effective bowling the in-swingers or out-swingers. So these kind of things, you need to think as a captain,” admitted Kohli.
The unfamiliarity, nonetheless, is a virtue too. At a time when frequent match-ups have spoiled the novelty of fixtures, infused a sense of tedium, tours to New Zealand have sustained their charm. The television screens would transport the audience who’ve dodged their sleep to a sparkling green terrain and acquaint them with a weird accent.
In the unfamiliarity lies a certain degree of thrill too, despite the reality that most of their paths have crossed each others’ quite frequently, albeit in different contexts and formats. Most of New Zealand players are familiar to the Indian audience, yet unfamiliar when they put on the white robes.
Like the tours, success too has been rare in these climes — India have beaten New Zealand just twice in this century, in the 2009 series, while losing on the two other excursions. In nine sojourns before this series, India have returned home with the series just twice. All of the various factors contribute to an engrossing contest if a little too short, at a juncture when the teams have been at their strongest in their history.
India are perched at the summit of the World Test Championship, fashioned largely by arguably their finest assembly of fast bowlers which according to Kohli can slice through any side irrespective of the nature of the pitches. India have bowled out every opposition in their last seven Tests, the triumvirate of Ishant, Bumrah and Mohammed Shami pouching 142 wickers at 20.59 in their 10 Tests together, that is 74 percent of the wickets India have taken in these games. Add the pair of spinners — only one is likely to feature, a luxury when most teams have not even one — and they’ve perhaps the most well-rounded attack in contemporary cricket.
Seam, swing, pace, spin, bounce, variations, smarts — they tick all boxes. As impressively, they’re complemented by a battle-hardened batting firm that’s at the peak of its prowess or approaching that elevated stage. Even the inexperienced Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, and Hanuma Vihari have seamlessly progressed to this level.
In contrast, New Zealand might not have big names, barring Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson, or stability, but they are more than the sum of their parts, as New Zealand teams are stereotypically classified.
On balance, they have a better team than they ever had this century. Opening batsman Tom Latham has blossomed, Henry Nicholls has rendered stability, Tom Blundell is ripening, Colin de Grandhomme is nailing the job as the seaming all-rounder, BJ Watling has been a quality wicketkeeper-batsman for years, but hit another level in the last few years. Trent Boult remains an operator of the highest quality, while Tim Southee these days is more a chipping-in kind of bowler but still does his job and is lethal on strips that abet movement.
They’d miss the energy of Neil Wagner, who’s on paternity leave, but Daryll Mitchell and Kyle Jamieson offer canny alternatives. All they lack is a quality spinner, but the late-blooming Ajaz Patel could solve the predicament.
The only missing component for a gripping series is a heckling crowd, as venues across the country have seen dwindling attendance for cricket matches in general and Test matches in particular.
“Not saying this in a negative manner but the crowd plays a massive role in Australia and England. So you need to be in a zone where you need to be feisty and counter (the crowd) from all angles. I think in New Zealand, it’s all about cricket discipline and what the team brings onto the field,” remarked Kohli.
Though New Zealand were crushed by Australia last month, consumed by stage-fright and knackered by injuries to their key players, they fiercely guard their fortress. The last home series they lost was three years ago, against an at-their-peak South Africa.
And it doesn’t get more intimidating than Wellington – windy, blustery Wellington. Few grounds in the world make one feel as foreign as the Basin Reserve. The net session, and the wind that literally blows one away, would testify.
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