S. Ram Mahesh

Playing conditions make the host formidable

Christchurch: New Zealand’s cricket, much like its distinctive fauna, developed as a consequence of the island’s geographic isolation.

Stationed 2000 km southeast of Australia across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand bred conditions for cricket that were uniquely its own. The sticky-wet wickets yielded as readily as soft-set custard, enabling the ball to dwell and deviate when landed on the seam. The dense, water-charged atmosphere allowed the ball to swing — and as if this weren’t enough, the small, open grounds, sensitive to the blustery gusts that frequent these parts, furthered the cause of swing.

Distinct techniques

As a result of the lavish lateral movement on offer, medium-pacers — referred to disparagingly as ‘dibbly-dobblers’, but feared all the same — thrived. Finger-spinners did all right as well, profiting from the bite inevitable when a wet pitch dries.

Batsmen evolved a technique underpinned on leaving the ball. Several of them took stance two-eyed, so their right eye (if right-handed) aligned with the off-stump. This granted immediate knowledge of the co-ordinates of their stumps, helping them judge line.

Having to stretch as far forward as possible to counteract swing, simultaneously committing late to accommodate cut, robbed them of the space and time needed to accelerate their hands through the ball. So vigilant pushes and wary nudges fashioned from shortened back-lifts provided sustenance.

Indeed, so taxing were the conditions that Jack Fingleton, commenting on Charlie MaCartney’s aborted move to New Zealand, wrote, "Luckily for Australia, MaCartney stayed in Australia, and that, probably, was for the good of cricket also, because MaCartney (the batsman) might not have blossomed on the dubious pitches of the Isle across the Tasman."

The singular conditions of New Zealand made it a difficult side to defeat at home, although its early Test-playing years were barren. When the nation chanced on a great cricketer, it transformed into a formidable unit, impossible to master in its environment. Between 1979-80 and 1990-91, when possessed of Richard Hadlee, New Zealand went 13 straight home Test series without defeat.

Miserable record

It’s a reputation India knows all too well, for its record here is miserable. Since winning four of its first five Tests in New Zealand — including its first-ever away series (3-1) under M.A.K. Pataudi in 1967-68 — India has spent 33 years and 13 Tests without a win! In limited-overs cricket, India has managed just six wins in 20 bilateral ODIs; it has, moreover, never clinched a series in New Zealand.

An illustration of India’s touring woes may be had from its last visit in 2002-03. It began wretchedly when captain Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh were pulled up by Customs at the Auckland airport for carrying soiled shoes in their cricket coffins.

Matters subsequently degenerated. On damp, green strips (and drop-in pitches) that seamed all day, turning contests into lotteries, India surrendered the Tests 0-2 and the ODIs 2-5.

Things are expected to be different, however, for M.S. Dhoni’s men, here for two Twenty20 Internationals, five ODIS, and three Tests. For one, they’ve made it past Customs unscathed. For another, the conditions, in all likelihood, will be less extreme than those encountered in 2002-03.

Improvement in pitches

The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2008 recorded the improvement in pitches here as "dramatic". More recently, New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori said conditions were no longer as difficult for touring sides. "It would come down," he said, "to skill on the day".

This isn’t to say there won’t be help for the bowers. It might be the last phase of New Zealand’s domestic season, a time when the strips shed their spite, but the country has had good rains through the summer — a pre-requisite for keeping wicket-squares from getting jaded.

Hopefully, we’ll get fine cricket wickets that uphold the balance between bat and ball. India — armed with Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma, and stocked with gifted and great batsmen — has the opportunity to remedy its record in New Zealand, furthering, in the process, its quest to be the best side in all three formats.

India mustn’t underestimate the home side however. New Zealand isn’t the most high-profile team around, but as it showed recently in Australia, it has the makings of something special. Although it’s a quality seamer short, it contains a young, vibrant group of batsmen who appear to have broken from the caution of the past. We seem to be in for six weeks of fun.

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