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Overseas, almost all at sea for India

The hosts wrapped up a 2-0 series win to boost their standing in World Test Championship after thoroughly exposing Indian batsmen’s frailty in the ultra seam-friendly conditions that make New Zealand a tough place to tour for sub-continent teams.

Updated: Mar 03, 2020 08:47 IST

By N Ananthanarayanan, Hindustan Times New Delhi

File image of Virat Kohli (REUTERS)

Starting with 2018, if India have seen themselves as a force away from home, it has had a lot to do with the rise of their pace attack -- which has ensured no major rival goes into a Test series with any significant measure of superiority.

Two of three major series since this cycle started ended in failure because India’s batting unit didn’t collectively complement the efficiency of the bowlers. However, the short series in New Zealand, consigned to history on Monday with a three-day Test in Christchurch that completed three failures out of the last four major away series, marked a new low that will be tough to shake off.

The hosts wrapped up a 2-0 series win to boost their standing in World Test Championship after thoroughly exposing Indian batsmen’s frailty in the ultra seam-friendly conditions that make New Zealand a tough place to tour for sub-continent teams.

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Skipper Virat Kohli set the marker for overseas challenges starting with the South Africa tour of early 2018, followed by England; India lost the series 1-2 and 1-4 respectively, before soaring in Australia by registering the country’s first series win there.

The bowlers made a big impression on all three tours. In South Africa, India took all 60 wickets in the three-match affair; in England, they claimed 78 wickets in four Tests, with the only exception being the rain-hit Lord’s Test, which India lost by an innings.

New Zealand tours often don’t register as significantly on the cricketing Richter scale. Bilateral cricket history, huge crowds, mind games in the build-up, and a better away record of teams such as England and Australia, the latter in particular, contribute to that.

However, it will be akin to a failed project for the Indian team management despite the bright sparks—India won a Test each in South Africa and England. The abject surrender by the batsmen has also thrown a big challenge to new batting coach Vikram Rathour.

New Zealand fast bowlers cruelly exposed Indian batsmen. Kohli stood out in South Africa, England and Australia, where Pujara led the way in blunting the formidable pace pack.

On the first two tours though, India didn’t give themselves the best chance for success, which hurt them. In South Africa, India didn’t pick Ajinkya Rahane for the first two Tests—opting for Rohit Sharma--and dropped Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the second Test in Centurion despite his contribution with bat and ball in the first Test in Cape Town. Rahane was recalled for the final Test and India won on a tricky pitch, but the series was settled by then.

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In England, Pujara reached early to play County cricket to prepare for the moving ball in the early English summer. After low scores for Yorkshire, he was surprisingly left out of the first Test in Birmingham, which India lost narrowly. Recalled for the rest of the series, Pujara delivered, but India had lost their grip on the series before he warmed up.

Reaching New Zealand, India’s batsmen would have prepared for swing and seam. But few would have expected to be tested by a barrage of short-pitched bowling into their body with fielders at mid-on, backward short-leg, deep midwicket and backward square-leg. There were few deliveries that could be left alone, and riding the challenge was fraught with danger.

There was a half-century apiece from openers Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal, besides Pujara. However, the inexperienced openers were exposed with Trent Boult, Tim Southee, newcomer Kyle Jamieson, Colin de Grandhomme and Neil Wagner--he played only the second Test— executing their plans brilliantly.

Young Shaw, despite his courageous shot-making, paid for poor footwork and weakness against the short ball, caught twice fending. Agarwal got set in both innings at Wellington, but a series of short deliveries shook him up before he was sucked into a leg-side nick off Southee in the second innings.

Pujara was one batsman who played himself in each time--facing 42, 81, 140 and 88 deliveries—but his uncertainty around the off-stump led to his fall on three occasions. Boult bowled him once in each Test, with a seaming delivery at Basin Reserve and between bat and pad as one swung in sharply in the second innings at Christchurch.

The 10-wicket defeat in the first Test made it clear to Indian batsmen what to expect in Christchurch. But Kohli said his players were uncharacteristically drawn into worrying too much about pitch conditions instead of tackling situations as they developed.

Rahane was the most uncertain. In 10 innings in England in 2018, and seven in Australia, the No. 5 could not convert the two fifties each he made into a century.

In the first Test, Rahane struggled to deal with the constant switching of angle, especially by Boult. In the second innings in Christchurch, he was peppered with short deliveries by Wagner, who had even troubled Steve Smith with the tactic. Rahane was hit on the helmet and lost focus, only to be bowled soon after trying to flick a pitched-up delivery from Wagner.

India’s batting was totally exposed because Kohli, who has time and again stepped up, had his first quiet series since England 2014. The Kiwi bowlers seemed to revive his uncertainties around the off-stump. It pegged him to scores of 2, 19, 3 and 14 (he faced only 95 deliveries in all). They denied Kohli the chance to put bat on ball in Wellington before the tall Jamieson induced a nick off a drive. Boult next drew an injudicious pull and then Southee and de Grandhomme caught him with his front foot rooted, trapping him leg before twice at Christchurch.

At the post-series media interaction, Kohli denied it was poor technique but blamed India’s collective muddled thinking. “If you are not clear in your head, you don’t execute properly. Your feet don’t move, (you are) not sure whether to play the ball or leave it. These kind of things can creep in and they did in this series. It is all mental, I don’t think there is any problem with anyone’s game as such,” he said.

The Test No. 1 ranking, and a big lead in the WTC table, is India’s for now. But Kohli will know the effort it could take to lift the batting confidence with Australia lying in wait at the year end.


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