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IND vs NZ, 2nd Test: Wankhede Wicket to Come Under Focus as Kohli’s India Take on New Zealand

Winning a Test match overseas carries more heft and appreciation than winning at home. Fired up by previous coach Ravi Shastri’s vision about changing the perception about Team India as strugglers abroad, we have overcome the mental block about performing away from home. Led from the front by Virat Kohli and in his absence by the capable Ajinkya Rahane, the players were more than a match for Australia on pitches Down Under, then fought toe-to-toe against England on seaming tracks. Intimidation and sledging only goaded them to get better.

Captained by Rahane and under coach Rahul Dravid, India saw a Test win at home snatched from their grasp by New Zealand, in a thriller at Kanpur’s Green Park stadium. The wicket was prepared to last the course, not aimed at enhancing India’s strengths, as used to happen before. No cracks were visible even on the final day for spinners to run through the NZ batting. Bowlers ready to innovate or bend their backs gave the batsmen anxious moments. Axar Patel, Ravindra Jadeja, Ravichandran Ashwin, Tim Southee, Kyle Jamieson delivered. With little more help from the track, a result was possible inside five days. A draw was a moral win for the Kiwis.

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Prior to the Green Park encounter, NZ had exposed India’s struggle to adapt abroad during a one-off Test in England to decide the world number one Test nation. The conditions, climatic and cricketing, in neutral England was loaded in favour of the Kiwis, who had spent considerable time playing Tests against England, in the process were more familiar with the conditions than India. The confident Kiwi batsmen, backed by competent bowlers, caught the visiting Indians by surprise at Southampton’s Rose Bowl stadium. From Rose Bowl to Green Park, the tables have turned, under conditions far different from England.

The core of Kane Williamson’s squad is almost the same group who collectively had humbled India by eight wickets at Southampton. India went into the Kanpur Test without regulars (captain Kohli and opener Rohit Sharma resting, so did strike bowlers Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, wicket-keeper Rishabh Pant). Instead of the home team feeling the heat, Williamson’s teammates stared at defeat. When the Indian spinners went in for the kill, the Kiwis retreated and saved the Test in fading light.

So, what explains this change in the way NZ performed then and now, the hunter becoming the hunted, pitted against a comparatively inexperienced home team? For those cricket watchers who had mocked Team India for the collapse at Southampton, it may be difficult to comprehend the reason for India’s ascendancy against the world number one Test side. Simply put, the Kiwis were better-prepared for the Test Championship, and looked under-prepared in Indian conditions. On a slow track, Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar Patel created doubts in batsmen’s minds, edges off tentative blades did not carry to close-in fielders and came close to bowling out the opposition twice. The visitors were lucky.

Test cricket is the winner when games between two competitive teams go down to the wire, as India under Rahane proved overseas against Australia in nail-biting finishes in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The Indian captain did not complain about the testing conditions laid out for them, even as the Covid-induced bubble piled mental fatigue on the tourists. Courage at the crease and punch in the attack were visible as the away series was clinched. Test debutants and stalwarts performed, indicative of talent bubbling to the surface in first-class cricket, with all its pitfalls and fault lines.

When Kohli returns to lead in the second Test against NZ at Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium, pitch behaviour would be interesting to note. A repeat of the low bounce, lower pace Green Park wicket is unlikely. Focussed on return to winning ways, the feisty skipper is ruthless in driving home every bit of advantage. The track can be a valuable ally or a formidable foe, as he learnt the hard way overseas. New Zealand, Australia, England, South Africa prepare tracks to suit home team strengths. Nothing surprising here, should we return the favour, without worrying about what the cricket world feels?

Rahul Dravid’s view becomes critical here, about nudging curators to prepare favourable wickets, or tuning up his squad to adapt to the track laid out. Equally important is planning for the series to come, India is slated to travel to South Africa for a long tour after the two Tests against NZ ends. The India A squad is already engaged in four-day ties in SA. Inputs from India A think tank about the conditions to expect there will be helpful in choosing team combinations, based on available players from both India and India A.

The Kiwis showed at Southampton that adaptability is the key to success. Team India is a fearless bunch now away from home, confident at giving any cricket superpower a taste of their own medicine.

Australia and England know what to expect, t is SA’s turn to face a hardy bunch of visitors, ready to fight fire with fire. It is also pertinent to understand that performers in the ongoing Tests against the Kiwis may struggle to earn a berth on the team to tour SA, at the same time in-form players from the India A squad stand a chance.

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Middle-order batsman Hanumna Vihari was left out in the two-Test series against the Kiwis. Far away from home when the Test squad is announced, he stands a bright chance of getting a look-in for the tour to SA, on the strength of Test performances in extremely difficult conditions overseas for batting. Shreyas Iyer is a former India A mainstay, now ready to push for a place in the Test squad.

With Dravid in charge and players’ rotation policy par for the course, doors will open up for the talented ones, seizing the opportunity is in the player’s hands. Vihari, Shubman Gill, Washington Sundar against the Aussies, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur against England, Shreyas against the Kiwis are recent names which come to mind. India is hell-bent on building on its reputation as the Test team to beat, so that the one-off Test defeat at Southampton facing the Kiwis can be underlined as an aberration.

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