S. Ram Mahesh

The current New Zealand side is a work in progress

HAMILTON: India’s first Test win in New Zealand in 33 years was momentous on many levels not least of which the fact that the side started a series abroad assuredly.

While India has done much over the last eight years to dispel the notion that it is strong only at home — registering series wins in Pakistan, Zimbabwe, the West Indies, and England, and Test wins in Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and now New Zealand — it has continued to remain vulnerable early in a series.

India’s last two away series, in Australia and Sri Lanka, saw it lose the first Test. It isn’t a weakness unique to India: despite the unhealthy trend towards homogenisation of conditions (which gladdens broadcasters who benefit from games lasting the distance, but detracts from cricket’s essential appeal), every team on tour takes time settling.

Perhaps it is cricket’s natural means of correction: tours these days are so crammed, it is tough to pencil in a warm-up game; and without a preliminary, even accounting for the fact that the divergence in conditions has reduced, it’s difficult to start as one would hope.

If nothing else, the unknown tugs at the strings of certainty, loosening them.

Fortunately for India, this tour has played out nicely. The Test cricketers’ part of the one-day team had time to acquaint themselves with the conditions; they moreover played on two of the three Test grounds.

Those not in the one-day squad got here early to participate in the State Championship, the domestic first-class competition.

“Playing the game up at Rangiora for Canterbury was good, it gave us a chance to get used to the conditions rather than come in cold,” said Rahul Dravid, whose controlled half-century stabilised India’s first-innings before Sachin Tendulkar instilled it with his genius.

“The fact that we got that game in and the fact that we got some good quality practice over the last week showed in our performances with the ball and the bat,” said Dravid.

“Normally, Indian teams tend to start off slowly as a batting unit when we tour abroad and that sort of hurts us in the first Test match. It has been a trend for us in the past few years. We take time to get into the Test series. But as we saw, we hit the ground running hard,” he added.

Intensity

Credit must also be directed at the support staff led by coach Gary Kirsten. The squad has been allowed space for expression. The practice sessions have had intensity, with each cricketer getting out of it what he wants. The down-time, such a large part of a tour, has been managed well.

“I think Gary is doing a great job,” said Tendulkar, “and along with Gary, the support staff — Venkatesh Prasad, Robin Singh, Paddy (Upton), (physio/ doctor) Nitin Patel, (masseuse) Mane kaaka as we call him — has been doing a fantastic job.

“Gary has been instrumental in keeping the dressing room atmosphere lively. We’ve had some tough sessions in between, but he’s not lost his cool, not lost his faith in his players, and that’s a special quality.”

It has also helped that the current New Zealand side is a work in progress. There’s plenty of potential in the batting — Martin Guptill, Daniel Flynn, Ross Taylor, and Jesse Ryder have the ingredients for a world-class line-up — but it’s yet to translate into consistency.

India’s seamers, without doing anything spectacular in conditions that were modestly helpful but no more, reduced New Zealand to 60 for six in the first session of the Test, and it was this advantage that India pressed all through the Test.

New Zealand batsmen had the opportunity in fine batting conditions (barring the rough patches Harbhajan Singh had to work with) in the second innings to improve on the first, but didn’t step up.

The home side’s bowling suffered from a lack of penetration. Chris Martin and Iain O’Brien bowled genuine wicket-taking deliveries, but they were few and far in between. Without a cutting edge such as Shane Bond, New Zealand’s bowling didn’t manage the sustained accuracy needed.

M.S. Dhoni has now won five of six Tests as captain, and is yet to know defeat. He was as attacking as any modern-day captain in the first Test, although the diffused fields to Brendon McCullum weren’t clever. Dhoni’s remarkable ability though lies in inspiring the best from his men.

An enigma

Munaf Patel is a bit of an enigma, but he did what Dhoni asked of him at Seddon Park, bowling short, sharp, straight spells. Dhoni also seems to know the buttons to push with Harbhajan.

After bowling without imagination in the first innings, the off-spinner was magnificent in the second, exploiting the fact that New Zealand’s batsmen, who haven’t seen much of him, were timidly crease-bound.

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