The end was swift and bereft of drama. There was a sense of numbness, an air of aloofness as they dragged themselves from distant corners in scattered groups and assembled near the fence for the presentation ceremony. Some of them plunged onto the ground, others leaned against the digital advertising boards, Virat Kohli stood gazing emptily into the ground, Umesh Yadav kept guzzling water from a bottle. They looked weary and defeated, the joys of the T20 series looking distant and detached.
Their faces told the story — they had been resoundingly beaten by New Zealand. There was nowhere to hide, no wanton or meaningful excuse to spout, no grouses to harbour, no sense of deprivation, or a scope of optimism, or a lone rope of positivity to cling on, or a slim ray of hope. The memories of the series India would want to eliminate from their consciousness as fast as possible, but would keep haunting them like a nightmare.
Even the most chastening defeats this century churned out a positive to dwell on. Either the comeuppance of a young batsman, like Kohli on the 2011-12 tour to Australia, or the emergence of a fiery fast bowler, like Jasprit Bumrah on the 2018 trip to South Africa. But not on this tour, where no matter how hard or deep one scratches the surface, one would find just sand and soil.
The only benefit, in a perverse way, was that it offered a timely reality check on the quality of some of the players, opened the eyes to their glaring ineptness, cut open the flaws papered over by home games, and a forewarning that it’s time India revised their plans and moved on, if they aspire to be world-beaters as Kohli professes.
Let’s start with batting. Mayank Agarwal was India’s highest run-getter in the series, shored up by a half-century in the first innings of the Wellington Test. But once the ball started hemming and hooping around, his deficiencies were laid bare and the Kiwis could easily work him over. Soften him with a flurry of good-length out-swingers and beat him with a fuller in-swinger. As forthright as plans could go. Twice in Christchurch, he was dismissed this way. If the batsman gets out the same way in successive innings, it’s a perceptible sign of his technical inadequacy and mental vulnerability. Agarwal might have serious potential, but he’s far from a finished product.
The repeatable sequence of dismissals haunts his opening partner Prithvi Shaw as well. He landed here with a big-hitting reputation, some even likened him to a budding Sehwag and hyped up his ability to define the match in a single session. But unlike Sehwag, Shaw has multiple weaknesses, so glaring that the bowlers needn’t break much sweat or pull their hair in agony. If he doesn’t nick one behind, just bombard him with short deliveries at the body. He is bound to defend awkwardly and glove one to the ‘keeper or short-leg. Thus he could be nabbed of either foot, a fatal sign for an opener. His inclusion was a leap of faith that gloriously back-fired. As skilled as New Zealand’s bowling firm was, the Indian batsmen didn’t test their ingenuity or imagination as effectively as good batsmen do.
If the pair could be forgiven for their inexperience, Ajinkya Rahane can’t. For someone who has featured in 65 Tests, he doesn’t exude the assurance of one. After his sterling teething-in years, he has regressed, a reverse evolution from a dependable to flaky batsman, who no longer reads the game situations as sharply as he used to. Like the openers, it doesn’t take an elaborate set-up to dismiss him. A few accurate short balls would suffice, Neil Wagner would attest. Once a no-frills batsman, he tends to bat as if he’s is tasked to hunt down a steep target in a T20 fixture. Even now, Rahane looks comfortable in the middle, before he flicks a switch in his head and transforms into a different batsman. Hasty and hurried, he invites his own downfall. Whatever happened to the Rahane of old, there needs to be an autopsy.
Rishabh Pant doesn’t need any such detailed self-analysis. Despite being the only Indian wicketkeeper to rack up hundreds in England and Australia, he seems woefully deficient against the moving ball, tentative and uncertain on surfaces with a tinge of pace and movement. Sticking around might not be his forte, but when the big-hitting skills too desert him, he becomes a bogus player. He was another batsman the New Zealand bowlers didn’t fret or fume over. Feed him with tempters outside the off-stump, and he will invariably nibble at one, all hands and no feet. The New Zealand bowlers could drive a limousine through the space between his bat and pad if they wanted to. So as much as the New Zealand bowlers planned and plotted, bowled with fire and purpose, the vulnerabilities of several Indian batsmen just made their job easier. It was like fishing in low tide, the waves hardly resisted.
Often on these shores, one gets a spectacular delivery, like Pujara got a corker from Trent Boult on Sunday, but for nailing most other batsmen, the Kiwi bowlers didn’t require magical deliveries. Just routine planning and execution. Kohli’s patch only magnified their ineptitude.
Interestingly, when Kohli was asked about his team’s over-dependence on him, he fished out Pujara’s feats in Australia and deflected the crux of the question. “When you play collectively, your aim is to put 300-350 on the board. Whether five people score 50-60 each or one person makes 150 like Pujara did in Australia, our aim’s to have a big score on the board. If that doesn’t happen collectively, you must think about that rather than thinking what individuals have done,” he said.
But what of the rest? So if this is Indian’s best group of batsmen, it’s high time the team management revised, reassessed and reworked their strategies, besides introspecting some of their decisions.
Like giving Shaw precedence over Shubman Gill, who had more exposure to the New Zealand conditions, having been in the country for nearly a month with the A team. Like not furnishing KL Rahul a comeback ticket in whites. There’s enough precedence in giving someone a red-ball break based on his white-ball form. Rahul was undoubtedly India’s finest batsman in the limited-overs leg, has played more Tests than Agarwal and Shaw put together, and arguably possesses a better technique that both. It was not like the Test squad was picked a month before the Test series. If they had the bravado and conviction to wait for Ishant Sharma till the end of the ODIs, they could have as well defied the conventional norm and included Rahul in the Tests. If this is India’s best assemblage of batsmen, it’s time the cricket board pondered on the domestic structure.
The bowling, though, was supposed to be India’s best ever — envenomed to burst through any side anywhere in the world. But it failed to blast the New Zealand lower order twice in the series, which eventually made a defining difference. In Wellington, the last three added 123 runs. In Christchurch, they combined 82. These aren’t an eerie coincidence, the inability to run through the lower order has cost India several games in the not-so-distant past. Remember the 2018 England series, wherein Sam Curran marshalled the lower order. Shastri addressed the weakness before the Christchurch match and assured redressal.
He confided: “It has been a problem for us in the last year or so. In spite of us doing well, there have been days when we just cleaned up the tail, on other days where there has been some resistance. We have had a chat on that, how to look into bowling at the tail. Either at times, are we being over-aggressive or at times are we being too defensive. We have had a chat on that and we will look to address it in a different manner. You will see it.” We didn’t.
The myth of India’s bowling depth was also debunked. No doubt, the trio of Ishant, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, at the zenith of their powers, is intimidating, but take one out and they become an inferior force. Yadav’s struggles with the Kookaburra are well documented and Navdeep Saini is untested at this level. Kohli claims the management has identified three or four of them, but as of now, they are overwhelmingly dependent on Ishant, Shami and Bumrah.
In that sense, the Test series was a wake-up call, or as Shastri said before this Test, a wake-up alarm. If they don’t wake up now, there would be more painful ends without drama.
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