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India in New Zealand 2008-09

India in New Zealand 2008-09

A summation and what lies ahead for the two sides.

First things first – there wasn’t much about India’s recently concluded tour of New Zealand that was surprising – neither what happened during play nor the end result. Maybe one did not expect India to reach the fifth ODI without conceding a game but that too is not indicative of a lack of confidence in the clear superiority of the Indian side but the appreciation of the general tendency for the shorter versions of the game to be more of a leveler. Great out-fielding, clever running between the wickets, shorter spells for all bowlers irrespective of caliber and form on the day, tends to make these contests, somewhat artificially, more competitive. The Twenty-20 matches that heralded the tour and resulted in resounding home victories underscored that point rather than being a precursor of things to come.

The history and the monkeys on the back:

The hoopla about India’s past four decades’ record in New Zealand that dominated the pre-tour publicity and media headlines had nothing to do with facts on the ground. Irrespective of what the media mavericks may want us to believe, history is precisely that – history.

Sure, Indian sides have been handicapped by their two endemic weaknesses which were so emphatically exploited in the past by New Zealand curators – a lack of depth in the opening attack and a lack of class and spine at the top of the batting order. However, both these have been addressed in recent times. The Indian openers for this tour represented high quality batsmanship and explosive stroke play while the Indian attack was going to be three-fourths based on pace. What happened before their playing days, let alone before they were even born, did not overly concern this Indian side.

What did concern them, however, was the outcome of the last tour India undertook to New Zealand and those memories certainly rankled particularly with six of the senior most members of this squad who had terrible recollections of that trip in 2002-03. That was a humiliation they had really taken to heart. It had finished the one-day career of at least one of them and Laxman was determined to make every innings count. Tendulkar had taken it out on India’s opponents at the ICC World Cup in South Africa with a frenzied batting display but it was not something a man like Tendulkar would have got over. That series had led to the biggest batting slump in his career, which finally ended only on May 2007 – those three consecutive innings at Sydney and Multan notwithstanding. Zaheer and Harbhajan may have had 16 wickets in those two Tests at 15.3 but it looked ordinary before Tuffey and Oram’s 24 at 10.1 each. They too had a point to prove.

No, they had nor forgotten that miserable tour. It was the greatest humiliation heaped on an Indian side in recent memory and this team would have wanted to get that particular monkey off its back and not what may or may not have been done in the last four decades.

Two completely different sides from different systems:

One was not surprised by the end result because New Zealand have never challenged the top sides in the longer version of the game, although in limited overs, with their bits and pieces players, their innovative and, at times, cheekily aggressive batsmanship and above all else, their consistently aggressive out-fielding they have been a side never to be taken lightly. They have consistently surprised the best and invariably have been able to hold their own.

India on the other hand, in one day cricket, have been managing to overcome their flaws in out-fielding, poor to terrible running between wickets, hapless bowling at the death etc with the sheer magnificence of their top order but it has not been consistent until very recently. Their batting, however, has always been better suited for the longer version of the game and their weaknesses less exposed in the sub-continent. Now, with the acquisition of a quality opening pair and more than just a token new ball bowler, they have started looking good even away from the sub-continent – South Africa being the one question mark still remaining.

This difference between the two sides, India more suited for the longer and New Zealand the shorter version of the game is, in effect, reflective of the two systems. New Zealand, with its lack of specialization, relatively shorter career spans, and generally more unorthodox styles and outlook have produced individuals and units less suited to the grind and mental disciple of the longer version. Of course, this pertains more to batting but it is relevant, even if to a lesser extent, to the bowling as well.

The Indian system promotes orthodoxy. The Mumbai and the Southern schools continue to churn out cricketers who model their games on the past masters. Grinding the opposition to dust in an endless stream of grudge games is built in very early in a Mumbai youngster’s psyche. The Tendulkars and Kamblis grinding out triple hundreds in their pre-teens is not something that just happened once. Its what you can see year after year in the Harris Shield for schools cricket in Mumbai.

India still believes in specialisation and the swing and spin bowlers are still encouraged. Maybe with the onslaught of Twenty-20 and IPL things will start changing and we may see the effect on the coming generation of Indian cricketers.

The longer career spans have also meant that Indian sides will, invariably have a mix of players with greater experience which, as it happened in this series, can make all the difference, particularly in Test matches.

The Test series (1-0 to India) . . . and the Issues it threw up for the Kiwis

BATTING: Looking back at the tour, and the Test series in particular, one is struck by some very odd statistics, which seem to indicate that the Kiwi batting performance as being fairly comparable with the Indians. Have a look.

– Ryder (327) and Taylor (322) did not score many fewer runs than Tendulkar (344) and Dravid (314); nor are Vettori (220) and McCullum (232) disgraced by a comparison with Laxman (295) and Dhoni (155). Only Gambhir with 445 that has no parallel on the New Zealand side.
– There were ten centuries scored in the series, as many as six came from the Kiwis – including the only double century.
– Yet India outscored New Zealand by 18 runs per wicket or 180 runs per completed innings. Paradoxical? not really.

As usual the devil lies in the detail. And that detail shows us New Zealand’s first batting problem . . .

NZL issue # 1. Consistency from the batsmen

New Zealand may have won the century stakes (6 to 4) but they were nowhere in the frame when it came to scoring fifties. They had four to India’s fourteen and there in lies a tale. Those 14 fifties added one and a half times as much to India’s tally than the four centuries.

New Zealand showed that although once they were settled in they could, and did bat, for long duration. Three of the four 150 plus innings in the series came from the Kiwis as did the only double century. Yet. Most of the time they failed to do the initial hard work and stay at the wicket through that difficult initial period. Too many times their top batsmen fell for low scores. Between them, Ryder and Taylor scored 649 runs in ten innings but as many as 561 of those runs came in just four innings.

Rahul Dravid’s run of 66, 83, 62, 35 and 60 is what New Zealand need to look at to understand what Test batting is all about.

There were 11 three-figure partnerships in the series and New Zealand had their fair share with five which included the two highest – 271 and 186. In fact, their average century partnership was of 168 runs as against India’s 125. Yet the impression one carries of the Test series is of Indians batting on and on in long partnerships. How come?

Once again the detail shows that in addition to the century partnerships, India also managed ten partnerships between 50 and 99, New Zealand had three. In every innings New Zealand lost wickets in a heap – often right at the start but also in the middle.

For India, the presence of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman at 3, 4 and 5 meant there was always someone to guide the team along and steady the ship at the fall of each wicket. It is here that the lack of gray hair in the Kiwi batting order seemed to be a cause for concern.

That brings us to the second problem with the Kiwi batting . . .

NZL Issue # 2. Experience in the batting order

New Zealand needs some experience in the middle order. If they can’t get it from outside the least they need to do is push McCullum and Vettori up the order to provide some gravitas. The fact that Vettori and McCullum were involved in five of these eight partnerships just proves the point.

There was a second issue related to partnerships – the lack of any at the top of the order. The Black Caps scores at the fall of the 3rd wicket in each of the five innings were: 40, 75, 23, 80 and 84. India’s corresponding scores were: 177, 78, 260, 165 and 208.

The average for the first three wickets for India and New Zealand was 185 and 58. You can’t yield an advantage of 128 runs for the first three wickets alone and expect to be competitive.

This brings us to the third problem with the Kiwi batting . . .

NZL Issue #3. Top order needs urgent overhaul

Guptill looks competent and should be persevered with but he needs a new opening partner. Further, either Taylor or Ryder will have to move up to the pivotal number three spot. These are the two stars in the batting line up and they need to step up and take the responsibility. There job at numbers four and five isn’t going to become easier if the first three are going to go for next to nothing.

The next four wickets yielded, on average, 67, 61, 23 and 69 for the Kiwis against 72, 73, 56 and 28 by the Indians which is very comparable once again. The fact that New Zealand’s best comes for the 7th wicket only buttresses the argument for pushing the skipper and the deputy up the order. Do that and the gap with the Indians at this stage is negligible. Of course the issue of consistency remains.

BOWLING: One look at the bowling tables for the series and you can see how Zaheer for India and Martin for New Zealand stand out. Zaheer’s 13 wickets cost 30.8 (strike rate 53.3) each while Martin’s 14 came at 32.7 (strike rate 57.5). Considering the relative batting strengths of the two sides, Martin comes out very favourably in this comparison. Yet Zaheer was the stand out bowler for the series. While all Zaheer’s accolades are well deserved, the vast difference in the quality of the two top orders begs consideration.

New Zealand’s second best pacer, O’Brien has 9 wickets at 50.2. He suffers in comparison to the modest figures of Ishant Sharma with 8 at 41.8. They have comparable Test records at the end of this series:

– O’Brien: 52 wickets in 17 Tests at 31.9
– Sharma: 52 wickets in 18 Tests at 33.2

O’Brien holds his place in the side on merit.

The real difference between the two attacks was the spinners. Daniel Vettori and Harbhajan Singh appeared to be in completely different class. Harbhajan’s 16 wickets came at 21.4 while Vettori’s 7 came at 52.3. More tellingly, Vettori struck every 117th ball against Harbhajan’s 55-ball strike rate. Of course, the Indians are better players of spin but even if you imagined no batsmen at the crease Vettori did not appear in the same class. New Zealand will have to look elsewhere for the strike power in their bowling to support Martin as long as he is available. That brings us to the major problem with the New Zealand bowling. . .

New Zealand Issue #4: Absence of a strike bowler

There has been news of Bond wanting to make a come back. From what one has seen of this New Zealand side, they need a bowler like Bond more than anything else. Sure he has fitness issues and that is why, if and when he is brought back, he will have to be handled with kid gloves. That’s not something to be scoffed at. Many sides handle their premium bowlers with caution. Even if he bowls in short spurts Bond will add bite to this toothless New Zealand attack. The Kiwi board would surely look to getting Bond back to playing fitness. Form is not the issue. Martin was brought into the side for this series not because he was in great form but because he represented class comparison to the rest of the attack. Bond does the same and some.

There is another reason for wanting to get a bowler like Bond in this side. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, between them, scored 204 runs in this series in 6 innings with two fifties. Surely New Zealand need to find a way to blast out tail enders. Even Sharma and the bunny to beat all bunnies, Munaf Patel were enjoying themselves. A real fast bowler will help make the initial dent and to close the innings.

New Zealand may need to look at another bowling option – maybe an all rounder. Oram’s name comes immediately to mind despite his current poor form.

– CAPTAINCY/COACH: Finally one comes to the relatively more difficult to quantify issue of captaincy. Vettori, like most of the really nice guys one has seen leading international sides has seemed diffident and timid on the field. It may be a good idea to relieve Vettori of the captaincy. The question is who should take it up. McCullum is the first choice but with keeping wickets, moving up the order he may already have too much on his plate. As I said before if Fleming was to hear the call of duty, he may resolve more than one issue for this Kiwi side. There were whispers when he retired that the decision was hastened by the move to push Vettori to captaincy. If true, there may be hope. If any side has ever needed their own Alan Border, this is that side.

Finally, it was really surprising to see the home side fritter away whatever advantage was offered to the bowlers by bowling far too short while the Indians consistently bowled 12 to 18 inches fuller in length. In conditions with some propensity for movement in the air, this made all the difference. One wonders who, if anyone, is guiding the New Zealanders on this score. Maybe New Zealand needs a full time bowling coach.

Going back to the start of the tourThe T-20’s and a false alarm

With two sterling regular tournaments for the shorter versions and a mace to signify supremacy in the traditional game, cricket could end up having three separate Champions at the same time. One suspects, however, that the crown for the shortest version will always be most precariously perched on the head of the incumbent emperor. The very nature of the game and its format is such. The glitzy tour openers, that saw the World Champions, laid low unceremoniously, were just another reminder of this simple fact.

Sehwag lasted just 21 deliveries in the two games (including the two which got his wicket) and scored 50 runs off them. Gambhir lasted a delivery less. The fact that Sehwag was head and shoulders above all batsmen in the ODI’s that followed and Gambhir the Indian player of the tour just shows how fickle this format can be.

The next time, with exactly the same teams the results could be dramatically different or exactly the same. Who can predict? The only thing one learns from any T-20 tournament is that we were wrong – the boundaries could get shorter.

All that one could say at the end of the two curtain openers was that this gave no indication, whatsoever, of what lay ahead – and that’s exactly how it turned out.

The ODI’s – four plus one

The last game, which New Zealand won so very convincingly had so little common in context with the first four that one is tempted to look at this series as if it was a four match series and then a one off game, that was a flashback to 2002-03. From the point of view of the road ahead for New Zealand, only the slaughter of the first four is pertinent.

– One thousand and fifty four runs for 12 wickets in just 140 overs! This is what India scored in those first four ODI games.
– New Zealand played 20 overs less, lost twice as many wickets and scored 278 fewer runs.

After such a dramatic mauling, the complete reversal of the last game can be looked at as nothing more than an aberration. India were simply too domineering. It was not that New Zealand batsmen did not put up a decent show. Of the three times they batted they had an innings of 270 in 47 overs) and another of 334 in 44 overs! Yet they were simply blown away by a supreme batting outfit.

New Zealand did salvage some positives with the bat. Ryder and McCullum were a signal success at the top of the order. The two century partnerships (166 and 102) they had were the only ones in New Zealand’s entire campaign. Besides them, despite the couple of fifties by Guptill, the promise of McGlashan in the penultimate game the Kiwi batting was without substance in the middle. The two best middle (and lower middle) order batsmen of the test series were seen here at the top and the problems of the batting got shifted accordingly. Ross Taylor really struggled with the bat though he picked up in the tests, Guptill was adequate and Elliott disappointing.

The problems, however, lay with the bowling and the ‘all-rounders’.

The only bowler who was always treated with respect was skipper Vettori when playing. Butler was competent but played only three games. Mills recovered from the mauling of the first match to post some of the better figures in the next three games. Everyone else was taken to the cleaners. For New Zealand the form, or lack of it, of Jacob Oram must be of prime concern. In three of the first four games the Indians really went after him. He was the only surviving bowler from the medium pacers who had tormented India in that last tour and the Indians made sure he had something else to think of besides the 19 wickets at 13.1 each he had against them that time in both forms of the game. Add to that the 8 runs in 3 innings and this star ‘all rounder’ had really fallen on bad times. New Zealand desperately needs him to get back into some sort of form. New Zealand needs to rediscover its ‘all-rounders’. I do not disguise my skepticism for the bits-and-pieces players masquerading as all-rounders and those who run the game in New Zealand need to understand that without emphasizing on the specialist skills there is no way you can unearth genuine all-rounders.

What about the Visitors?

The Indian team came to New Zealand with not too many major worries. Among the minor ones, Rahul Dravid’s lack of fluidity would be have been one. He was one of the resounding successes of the tour and easily the most consistent batsman on either side. Another matter could have been the third pacer. Munaf has been an enigma right through his career with some good efforts punctuated with forgettable ones. The most annoying aspect of his showing for India has been his apparent lack of appreciation of his responsibity towards the side. When he was being taken to the cleaners in that fateful last over in the ODI his facial expressions of amusement were completely beyond comprehension. His fielding continues to be pathetic and his batting is as good as non-existent. India have to look beyond Munaf for the third seamer’s place. In Sreesanth, Balaji and RP Singh they have enough options. They have the time now to settle this matter.

Interestingly, it was India’s first major tour without Kumble and Harbhajan was much better as the senior spinner. It was good to see him willing to bowl round the wicket more comfortably as well as give the ball slightly more air though he does tend to ‘spear’ them in at the slightest hint of aggression by the batsmen. A great spinner should be doing the exact opposite.

Dhoni’s captaincy was good overall though it was disappointing to see him continue to bat on the fourth day of the last Test. Surely 519 runs were enough and there was no justification to carry on batting. One may give him the benefit of the doubt (a doubtful benefit as my late club coach would have said) and suggest that he did not take the weather report too seriously. Dhoni is improving as a captain and one feels confident that given the same circumstances (regarding declaration) he will act differently next time.

By the way, the loss in the final ODI after what looked like a sure-shot white wash was reminiscent of India’s failure to clinch a 5-0 win in Sri Lanka earlier this season. It may just be a co-incidence but it does rankle along with the team’s inexplicable antiques in the field after tea on the fourth day of the last Test. Gladiators dance on the remains of their fallen enemy with spiked boots and prize fighters do not smile and waive to the crowd in the last round having secured victory in the previous nine. They always strive for that knockout blow. India need to look back at the Australians over their prolonged dominance of the last decade and a half and the West Indians of the 1980 to add ruthlessness to their undoubtedly impressive set of skill sets.

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