Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Trent Bridge preview

I have the following five points to make about the first India-England Test in Trent Bridge.

One: This will be a close-fought Test between two young and flawed teams that have a lot to prove. However, England will win. For all the criticism that has been heaped on them after the Ashes and then the defeat to Sri Lanka, they are still the better team than India is. Some of this has to do with home crowd advantage. Some of it has to do with the fact that if England has a rotten captain in Cook, then he has an equally poor opposite number in Dhoni – so the captaincy differential that existed when Cook was up against Michael Clarke or Angelo Matthews will be nullified. But there are some other factors that will work in England’s advantage that I will analyze below.

Two: India’s bowling attack has been much-maligned. However, I predict that this is an attack that will perform with potency. India’s attack often performs better than expected in Tests abroad, and in both South Africa and New Zealand they were extremely strong early in the series before flagging as the series went on. India may well need to draw on their well of 7 fast bowlers over a 5-Test series; but at the start of the series, their front-line seam combination of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami will be a handful for England’s young batting line-up. Ishant really stepped up to the plate in New Zealand, showing glimpses of the bowler who burst onto the world scene in his debut series in Australia; if he can keep up that kind of performance, he will be a huge threat. He will have excellent support from Bhuvneshwar Kumar, whose swing will be a handful in English conditions, and whose sound temperament makes him the more likely leader of the attack. Shami is still raw, but can be a potent strike bowling supplement to these two. And while Ravindra Jadeja won’t get too much purchase at Trent Bridge, he will at least keep things tight and not give too much away.

Three: The weakness in the attack however concerns not the beginning of a Test match, but the end. Quite often, our bowlers have tended to make early in-roads and leave even strong batting line-ups on the mat early in a game. What they have not been able to do is to finish things off, and this has been too consistent a problem to be wished away. Some of the failure to finish is Dhoni’s fault – his inability to seize the big moments in a Test match as captain is almost pathological, and I will say at the outset that it is his continued presence at the helm that will be the biggest contributing factor to our defeat in England. But some of it is also the fatigue that a four-man bowling attack constantly experiences. This is why even though it could potentially compromise our batting, it would be important for India to go in with the fifth bowler. That fifth bowler could be Ishwar Pandey, who would provide potent support to the three front-line seamers and really provide depth to our seam attack; or Ravichandran Ashwin, who would be a more defensive option in terms of bowling, but would add depth to our batting line-up. Either would be a far better bet than Rohit Sharma, who adds no value with the ball and hasn’t yet shown that he is good enough to bat in Tests abroad. And both would be better bets than Stuart Binny, who is little more than a bits-and-pieces player, and is certainly not a Test class batsman or bowler. The idea behind taking a seam-bowling all-rounder to England was a sound one, but Binny was the wrong man for the job. Had India punted on young Rishi Dhawan, as a number 8 batsman and a fourth seamer who could swing the ball around, then the balance of the team would have been ideal. As it stands, that was one of the biggest missed opportunities in selection.

Four: The real worry for me concerns our batting line-up. It is true that our young batsmen gave a good account of themselves in South African and New Zealand. But England is a different ball game simply because conditions change so much even during the course of an innings, because of the rapidly changing weather. As Rahul Dravid has pointed out, this often means making both technical and mindset adjustments constantly during the course of an innings. Experience therefore counts for more in England than in any other part of the world, and our lack of experience will hurt. Cheteshwar Pujara is good enough to make the necessary adjustments to succeed, and is yet to be dismissed in the warm-up games. But our best batsman in terms of star power is undoubtedly Virat Kohli, who has shown the talent and temperament to adjust quickly to any condition that he has played in. I won’t say that Kohli is the next Tendulkar because no one can be; but I do think of him as the closest there is to Ricky Ponting in contemporary cricket. However, Pujara and Kohli will have a big burden to shoulder, given that our openers are inexperienced, and Murali Vijay in particular has yet to show that he has what it takes to succeed in Tests. I would personally prefer to see Gautam Gambhir in the starting line-up opening with Dhawan: he has shown good form in the warm-up games, and his added experience will be invaluable. India will also need to see Dhoni up to the plate with the bat, as the other batsman with experience, especially since if we play 5 bowlers as we should, then we need him to bat at no. 6.

Five: England’s batting line-up mirrors ours in many ways. The real threat there is Ian Bell, more than the woefully out-of-form Cook. For all of Cook’s consistency over the years, it is Bell who is the one class act in that line-up now that Kevin Pietersen’s career has ended, and Bell now has to play KP’s role as no. 4 and playmaker. He has always been a danger in English conditions, and has always enjoyed playing against India. Like India, England also has a couple of young batsmen with immense promise, especially Joe Root and Moeen Ali. And they bat deep, with Stuart Broad, a constant thorn in our side in the past, coming in as late as 9. The real threat in my opinion however comes from their bowlers. They do lack a quality spinner, but with Pragyan Ojha being kept out of the side for some completely mysterious reason, so do we – and in Trent Bridge, it is the seamers who will determine the fate of a bowling attack in any case. England’s four-man attack will be a handful, and James Anderson, though perhaps in the twilight of his career, will be a real danger. He still, in my mind, is the best swing bowler in world cricket today, and on his day can crack a game open in a single spell. In seam-friendly conditions against an inexperienced line-up, he is England’s ticket to an early win in the series.

Prediction: England wins a close game thanks to a match-defining spell from Anderson to go 1-0 up. 

Selection calls: Gambhir to open instead of Vijay; a fifth bowler in either Ashwin or Ishwar Pandey to play at 8 instead of the extra batsman.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Team in England, A team to Australia

The annual tamasha of the IPL is over, and the serious business of the summer is about to begin in England. The selectors have just announced the team, and as is usually the case with this selection committee, it is a good one (though I have some specific disagreements which I elaborate below). However, I find it increasingly difficult to get excited about Indian cricket anymore. Normally a series against England would be one of the biggest cricketing events to look forward to for an India fan. And old habits die hard, so I am still hoping that we can rub England’s nose in the sand. But there are so few Indian players of this current team who generate respect or excitement. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are the exceptions, and are two players of class and dignity who have already had to fight the odds and discriminatory treatment to reach where they have; Virat Kohli deserves respect simply because of his staggering consistency. Beyond that, there are good players, but no ambassadors for the sport. The contrast to the previous generation could not be starker.

On paper, I do think we are better than England at the moment. Since the debacle in 2011, there has been consistent rebuilding on our part, while the bottom has fallen out from under England’s chair this winter Down Under, with no obvious replacements for Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen or Graeme Swann on the horizon. Unlike in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, we are also facing a mediocre captain in Alastair Cook. However, I still don’t see us winning this series, for the simple reason that our side is still being led by M.S. Dhoni.

For all the restructuring of the past three years, for all the strong decisions made by the Sandeep Patil selection committee, in spite of the fact that with most others in the side it is performance that gets you in and keeps you there, Dhoni has been given a free ride. He has never been the best keeper in the country, a title that belongs unquestionably to Wriddhiman Saha, who is the best wicket-keeper India has produced since Syed Kirmani. The difference between the batting abilities of the two was there to see when we were last in Australia, Saha’s composed 35 in Adelaide a stark contrast to Dhoni, who was a walking wicket every time he came in to bat. But the real problem is that Dhoni is not an adequate Test match captain. His ultra-defensive, sit back and wait approach has cost us at least five wins in the 12 Tests we have played abroad since mid-2011. It is not a one-off, this is not a learning curve, this is the way he thinks, and he is set in his ways.

Dilip Vengsarkar has suggested that we will lose because we don’t have the bowling to take 20 wickets, but I don’t agree. We have a genuine fast bowler who can hit 150; another who can swing the ball both ways in the 140s; a third who can hit the deck and jag it around; a fourth who is a huge swing bowler of the sort who will thrive in English conditions; and two more who, although untried at the international level, have been stellar performers on the domestic circuit. I would have preferred the experience and variety that Zaheer Khan would have brought, and think his exclusion was a mistake. I would prefer greater quality in our spin attack, and think that the exclusion of Pragyan Ojha, without a doubt the best spinner in the country, is the real scandal of this selection (much more than the much-contested inclusion of Stuart Binny). And I would have preferred Umesh Yadav, who has proven himself at international level, to Varun Aaron, who struggles to find his radar more often than not. But the fact is that, in terms of seam at least, we have depth and variety in the attack, even if it is inexperienced. The real problem is that we don’t have a captain who knows how to utilize it.

Most likely, Dhoni will retain his stubborn insistence on going in with four bowlers – fueled by a fear of batting himself at number 6, and by his favoritism towards Rohit Sharma, who on merit now cannot supersede Pujara, Kohli or Rahane in the middle order. He will also retain his stubborn insistence on playing a spinner, mainly because he is worried about over rates. Ravi Ashwin is yet to show any capacity to succeed outside the sub-continent, in any format; Ravi Jadeja will at least keep it tight, but having a batting all-rounder in the side at 8 as your lead spinner is not a move calculated to win Test matches. If we were going to be playing 4 bowlers with a mandatory spinner in the side, then having Pragyan Ojha – who can keep it tight on batting-friendly tracks, but also toss the ball up and attack in a manner than Jadeja cannot – would have been essential. But no doubt Dhoni insisted on Ashwin and Jadeja not because of their bowling skills, but because they provide better batting options than Ojha does. This means that we are effectively going to be playing with three wicket-taking bowlers over a five-match series, a sure recipe for injury and breakdown. It’s just as well the selectors have stocked the side with six seamers.

If India is to have any hope of winning this series, they have to play 5 bowlers. This means a batting line-up of two openers, followed by Pujara, Kohli and Rahane, with Dhoni at 6 (though Saha would be the better bet on merit, as keeper and as no. 6). 7 and 8 then would be a toss-up between Jadeja, Ashwin and Binny. This is why I think there is a case for Binny’s selection in the side – having the option of a seam-bowling all-rounder on a long Test series is always good. (I don’t think Binny is the best one there is in India – I would personally have preferred Himachal’s Rishi Dhawan, who is a genuine swing bowler and the highest wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy this season – but the idea is sound). The choice between Jadeja and Ashwin meanwhile would be a tricky one. Ironically, while Ashwin came into the side as a potential strike bowler, it is Jadeja who has looked the more reliable bowler across all conditions. And equally ironically, while Jadeja got his call up on the back of his triple centuries for Saurashtra, it is Ashwin who has looked the better batsman in conditions abroad. But if two of these three play, it would allow a top 5 of specialist batsmen, with five bowlers, and yet batting strength down to 8. 9, 10 and 11 would be the three frontline seamers. Bhuvnesh, Ishant and Shami would be the obvious first-choice candidates, and the selectors have provided a good like-for-like back-up for each in case of injury, poor form or a need for rest: Pankaj Singh is a medium-based swing bowler like Bhuvnesh, Ishwar Pandey hits the deck from a height like Ishant, and Aaron provides a genuine fast-bowling option to back Shami up. If only Dhoni was to be injured and we had Saha in the line-up with Kohli as captain, this would be a line-up to win the series with, even though we would still miss Ojha’s versatility and Zaheer’s skill.

As a background to this series however, an equally important series will be played out, which is the India A series in Australia next month. And the selection for that series is almost as important as the one for this series has been. This is because it will give us an opportunity to test bench strength, and have a back-up of players who can step into the side to Australia this winter to replace anyone who might fail to cut it in England. So I turn next to the selection of this A side. There has been much talk of players who have succeeded in the IPL, but I stick to my guns in saying that IPL performances count for nothing when one is considering national selection. Instead, I will go by performances in domestic cricket, which has thrown up some genuinely attractive prospects who deserve a closer look.

The first three names I will pencil in are of the three who should have been in England but are not: Zaheer (who I still think has a series in Australia this winter left in him, fitness permitting), Ojha and Umesh. I also think that it is essential to try out a couple of all-rounders at 7 so that we can see what other options we might have to fall back on in case Binny, Jadeja and Ashwin don’t cut it. As I have said, Rishi Dhawan is the obvious man to take a look at here as a seam bowling all-rounder. As a spin-bowling all-rounder, I’d take Madhya Pradesh’s Jalaj Saxena, who has been in fine bowling form, and is a good enough bat to even open for his state. This leaves 5 batsmen, a keeper, a third seamer and the reserves to still select.

Let’s start with openers. Robin Uthappa would be the obvious one. He has earned his recall to the Indian ODI side through strong IPL performances, but it is his improving performance for Karnataka over the past two years that makes me think he is worth looking at in the longer format as well. A hard-hitting, quick-scoring opener is always an asset in Tests, and while Shikhar Dhawan has stepped into Virender Sehwag’s shoes admirably, Uthappa could play a similar role. He has always had the strokes. What he lacked in the past was patience and shot selection, couple with a tendency to play across the line. Ever since he appointed Praveen Amre as his personal coach two years ago, both have improved, and what really impresses now is his ability to drive absolutely straight in the V. Uthappa was actually Dhawan’s contemporary as an India under-19 player, and was probably fast-tracked into the national side too soon, without any first class cricket under his belt. Dhawan meanwhile improved his game through years of grind on the first-class circuit. Uthappa has had to go back to a similar kind of grind, and the benefits are there to see. I think Uthappa has a real chance of being part of our plans for the next World Cup, but I think there might even be a future for him in the longer format.

For his opening partner, we need to look at two of the brightest young stars coming through the ranks today, Lokesh Rahul and Jiwanjot Singh. Rahul opens with Uthappa for Karnataka, and is his namesake Rahul Dravid’s protégé. Like Dravid, he is technically correct and full of class, and he has made piles of runs for Karnataka this year. Jiwanjot is a little younger, and has only two first-class seasons under his belt. But he has been a resounding success in both, getting runs on seam-friendly tracks in Mohali, and it is time to give him a chance on a bigger stage. He is primarily a back-foot player, very strong square of the wicket, which could give him success on bouncy Australian tracks.

The middle order is straightforward. Ambati Rayudu and Kedhar Jadhav have been knocking at the doors for a while now, and this is a good chance for both to prove themselves abroad. At no. 5, I would pick Manish Pandey, another Karnataka lad who promised much as a youngster, failed for a few years to deliver on his promise, but who has come into his own in his mid-20s to stake a claim to greater heights. He has come into the limelight on the basis of his performance in the IPL finals, but he has a string of strong performances in the Ranji Trophy before this which is why he should be in contention. Parthiv Patel meanwhile is the obvious choice for keeper who can bat at 6. Ashok Dinda has along with Pankaj Singh been the most consistent seam bowler in domestic cricket over the past 5 years. Pankaj deserves his spot on the plane to England, but Dinda, who was never given a fair run in spite of being on the fringes of selection for a while, at least deserves to remain in the picture.

Finally, there are two other reserves who deserve to be selected. The first is a reserve middle-order batsman, and here I would go with Baba Aparajith, who has the ability to be a long-term batting all-rounder for India. Aparajith impressed with his technically correct batting, his useful off-spin, and his stunning slip fielding as part of the victorious under-19 World Cup side in Australia a couple of years ago. Since then, he has taken his performances to the first class stage, making lots of runs for Tamilnadu in spite of the failures of those around him. Aparajith has the temperament of a Test player, exhibiting the calm under pressure that one associates with the likes of Dravid and Laxman, Pujara and Rahane. I am delighted that this selection committee has not been rushing under-19 players into international cricket; but Aparajith is the exceptional member of that victorious 2012 squad, and he is ready at least for exposure to A team cricket.

The second is a reserve seamer, and here I would ignore the likes of Mohit Sharma (who seems distinctly ordinary to me, and at best purely a T20 bowler) to go with one of the most exciting finds of this past domestic season, Railways’ Anureet Singh. He didn’t play much in the IPL and so is not a name on everyone’s lips; but he is someone who consistently bowls in the 140s, and had a big role to play in the strong showing of an otherwise humble side. He is still young and raw, but has genuine potential; it would be good to give him a taste of Australian conditions, and he is definitely one to watch closely in the upcoming domestic season.

Therefore, my playing 11 in England would be:

1.       Murali Vijay / Gautam Gambhir (depending on form in tour games)
2.       Shikhar Dhawan
3.       Cheteshwar Pujara
4.       Virat Kohli (V)
5.       Ajinkya Rahane
6.       Mahendra Dhoni © (W) (alas. Saha, if merit was the criterion)
7.       Ravindra Jadeja / Ravichandran Ashwin / Stuart Binny
8.       Ravindra Jadeja / Ravichandran Ashwin / Stuart Binny
9.       Bhuvneshwar Kumar (back up: Pankaj Singh)
10.   Ishant Sharma (back up: Ishwar Pandey)
11.   Mohammed Shami (back up: Varun Aaron)

And my India ‘A’ team to Australia would be:

1.       Lokesh Rahul / Jiwanjot Singh
2.       Robin Uthappa
3.       Ambati Rayudu
4.       Kedhar Jadhav
5.       Manish Pandey
6.       Parthiv Patel (V) (W)
7.       Rishi Dhawan / Jalaj Saxena
8.       Zaheer Khan ©
9.       Ashok Dinda
10.   Umesh Yadav
11.   Pragyan Ojha


12.   Jiwanjot Singh / Lokesh Rahul
13.   Baba Aparajith
14.   Anureet Singh
15.   Jalaj Saxena / Rishi Dhawan

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Wellington Test thoughts and New Zealand series post-mortem

Even though the result of the Wellington Test was a disappointment for me as an Indian fan, it was another great game of Test cricket to follow on from the one in Auckland. This series has just confirmed how Test cricket is the greatest format of the game. One of the nicest things about this Test was the good crowds on all the days, which adds so much atmosphere to a Test match, especially compared to Auckland, where the stands were largely empty. The rarity of five days of fine weather in Wellington only added to what was, for a neutral observer, a perfect game of cricket.

For a biased Indian fan though, this was not a perfect game. In spite of winning every toss in the series, we could not win a single match. The toss was especially important in this game, because it would have been a different story if we had to bat first. The New Zealand 1st innings showed how difficult it was to bat on a green top, and there is no question the wicket eased up considerably after the first day. India was similarly lucky in Auckland with McCullum not enforcing the follow-on, otherwise we wouldn’t have had a chance there either. This is a series we would have been favorites to win going in, so the end result was simply embarrassing. Meanwhile, this has to be one of NZ’s most famous series wins.

It is not all doom and gloom though. The team has improved, and at least showed more of a willingness to fight than in England and Australia. We chased 407 gamely in Auckland, and began the 2nd Test well. But at the end of the day, the success was in the moments, and the overall tour was a failure. What is so disappointing is that yet again, we were well placed at so many moments but couldn’t make it count. There are positives to take back, but it is happening too often that we just take positives from series abroad without actually winning. It is now nearly three years since a series win outside sub-continent – indeed since a single Test match win outside the sub-continent - which represents something closer to a crisis than a disappointment. We have been hiding behind home wins for too long, and it is now time to face reality and do something about it.

Too often, it is our much maligned bowling attack that is blamed in such situations, but I don’t think they were at fault this time. Even in the 2nd innings at Wellington, as NZ piled up the runs, the bowlers kept up the pressure and didn’t leak runs. If I do have one general criticism of our seam attack, it is the inability of anyone to bowl yorkers. I didn’t see a single one all series, not even to the NZ tail. It is a skill our quicker bowlers do not seem to possess.

Kohli’s drop of McCullum was clearly the turning point of this Test, but the real cause of our failure to win was that the selection was not bold. To win Test matches abroad, we need 4 proper bowlers, 5 proper batsmen, an all-rounder and a keeper. When will our team management wake up to this reality? On this wicket, we should have selected 4 fast bowlers. That would have indicated a mindset to attack and go for a win. (Even with just three seamers, we managed an over rate of just 11-12 overs per hour, which is a disgrace). I have no problems with Jadeja playing the role of all-rounder and batting at 7; but his selection as one of 4 bowlers suggested more a desire to bolster the lower order batting than to take 20 wickets. If you’re going to play 4 bowlers (itself a defensive move) then you need to play 4 proper bowlers, all capable of taking wickets. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s ability to control his line and move it both ways would have been a real threat in these conditions, and it would be important to have him involved in England. NZ in contrast did well by selecting an all-seam attack, rather than playing a spinner who would release the pressure as Ish Sodhi did in Auckland.

Selection is the responsibility of the captain, but that wasn’t the only point at which Dhoni failed as a leader. His field placements continued to be terrible. The signature example of this was when Tim Southee came in to bat in the 1st innings. Southee is a tailender and has no technique, he was swinging wildly at everything, yet everyone was immediately placed on the boundary for him. In some ways, the extra runs allowed to NZ in the 1st innings is symptomatic of a more serious long term problem and worry than the inability to break an epic partnership. It really shows how average Dhoni is as captain when the time comes to go for the oppositions’ throat – and there are now too many examples of this to count. It happened at Lord’s, when England was 72 for 5 at lunch in the second innings and Dhoni opened the bowling after the break with Suresh Raina; then at Trent Bridge, when England was 124 for 8, and Dhoni spread the field as soon as Stuart Broad came out to bat, losing the game and the series in that moment; then again at the Wanderers, when we nearly lost defending 458 in the 4th innings; then  again in Auckland, where NZ were allowed to get 500 after being 30 for 3; and now Wellington. 5 of the last 14 Tests abroad could have been won had Dhoni been more proactive as captain. He has no killer instinct, and it felt like he had simply given up during the McCullum-Watling partnership. Not for the first time. He doesn’t change plans as the situation demands and just sits back and hopes things happen. Dhoni doesn’t just make mistakes with where he places his field, but also with who he places in particular positions. Kohli is a brilliant in the circle, but has now dropped a number of catches close-in throughout his career. I don’t want to excuse Kohli’s miss off McCullum, which was criminal – but why was he the close in fielder there?

Quite simply, Dhoni has been shown up both as an overseas Test player and captain. So – how many more losses are needed to lead to a change in captain? It is time for a Kohli / Pujara leadership combine. If he had any self-respect or interest in the development of Indian cricket, Dhoni himself would have stepped down at the end of this series. But it is clear that he is only interested in maintaining his own power.

Let’s talk about the performances of the others in the team. Amongst the bowlers, Ishant Sharma was the stand-out performer of the series, and his bowling in the 1st innings was wonderfully hostile. He is in a good rhythm after a long time, and bowled as well as he had done to Ponting in his first series. It was almost as if he had been on the phone with Mitchell Johnson, and he was unrecognizable from the Ishant of the past 3 years. He also put a value on his wicket while batting as night-watchman in the 1st innings, which is something we have seen from him often. It was an almost perfect performance, except for the dropped catch of McCullum off his own bowling. That is becoming a worryingly consistent habit of his. He dropped Clarke early when the latter made 327, and Cook when he went on to make 290, so the minute he dropped McCullum I had a sinking feeling that we were in for something special. It looks like dropping opposition captains is Ishant’s thing.

It was also good to see Mohammed Shami regularly hitting speeds above 140. He gives the Indian attack the bite it lacked, and needs to be encouraged to keep bowling fast. But he is still a work in progress, and needs to learn to bowl dry. When good, he’s very good, but when bad, he’s tripe. Even when Ishant is bowling poorly, he’s not that expensive, but Shami leaks runs when off-color. Zaheer started the series poorly, but was at his best in the 2nd innings in Wellington. What he brings is loads of experience, and clearly is having a role in grooming the younger bowlers. What he can do like no one else is spot weaknesses in the batsman and prey ruthlessly on them. And he gave it his all, bowling at 140k with the 3rd new ball after 160 overs in the 2nd innings. It was a heroic performance from the senior stalwart.

The batting was on the whole encouraging. We made runs in 3 innings out of 4, but more than that what stood out was how positively we batted, scoring at a healthy run rate throughout the series. This is a line-up that for the most part looks to be on the right track. Currently, the lowest average of our top 6 is 37. If Ishant can carry on from here to become the leader of our bowling attack that he promised early in his career, then along with this line-up we have the nucleus of a good side.

The stand-out batsman was Shikhar Dhawan. I think his 115 in Auckland was very important for him, because he is a confidence batsman, and one could see how he fed off that knock in the 1st innings in Wellington. That 98 to my mind has been the best innings of his career so far. What was impressive was how he played on the merit of the ball, showing maturity and judgment. He is showing that he can be aggressive while still having a calm approach, and he made the bowlers work hard to get his wicket, even when bowling conditions were very good. His one weakness seems to be short ball on the body. The series in Australia at the end of the year will be the real test for him, as he will get a lot of those from Mitch Johnson. Rahane’s was the other impressive batting performance. He copped a couple of poor decisions earlier in the tour, but showed calm composure when the team was under pressure, and produced some beautiful drives. His 100 should give him tremendous confidence to establish himself in the Test arena.

The other batsmen didn’t have such great series. Vijay was unlucky, getting a beautiful ball from Wagner to dismiss him in Auckland, and then from Southee to dismiss him in the 1st innings in Wellington. Still, our opening partnerships in the series were 10, 2, 36, and 1, which should raise alarm bells. Vijay probably deserves a slightly longer rope, but the fact that we didn’t have a third opener on tour or an obvious replacement for him in India at the moment is a matter of serious concern. Pujara and Kohli had disappointing series, the latter’s 2nd innings 100 notwithstanding (he did have a big nick early in his innings after all, so it really was two innings – and he had a lot to atone for with that dropped catch). I’m not worried about Pujara, he has performed in every series he has played in except this one, and we all know how much potential Kohli has. It is good that our batting on the whole performed in this series even though our two best batsmen going in to it had an ordinary time of it.

The one batsman who does not look the part to me is Rohit Sharma. Simply put, I am not sure that he has the temperament to survive in Test cricket. Sure, the start to his career was great, but that was against the West Indies in home conditions. He has not been up to the mark in the two series outside the subcontinent since. Jadeja is as good a Test batsman as Rohit, and having him bat at 7 would allow us to play 5 bowlers. Rohit does not even provide a particularly decent bowling option; he never looks like taking a wicket, and does not even meet the part-timer standards of a Ganguly or a Clarke. Replacing him with Bhuvnesh in the 11 in England would add much more value to the side.

The other person whose place in the side must be reevaluated is Ashwin. Of course, he didn’t get a chance in New Zealand, but that’s precisely the point – he is supposed to be a strike bowler, but the captain and team management didn’t have the confidence in him to play the role of lead spinner. This may in part reflect Dhoni’s defensive mindset, but it is also a reflection on Ashwin’s earlier performances (or lack thereof) outside the sub-continent. I think this could be the end of the road for Ashwin outside the sub-continent. He is undoubtedly an impact player in the sub-continent and in T20 cricket, but his performances in Tests and ODI’s outside the sub-continent, and even in ODIs in the sub-continent, have been mediocre. He is ineffective on pitches that don’t help him. Given that two spinners in a Test abroad is unlikely, Jadeja’s accuracy makes him a better first-choice spinner, while Pragyan Ojha provides a more reliable back-up option on the bench.

Finally, a word about New Zealand’s performance. One could criticize them for not declaring earlier and giving themselves more time to go for a win, but McCullum was clearly content with protecting the series lead. Nonetheless, this was an amazing summer of cricket from NZ. I like the look of this team. Their fast bowling is more impressive than I’ve seen for a long time. All their seamers can maintain nagging lines and lengths, seam and swing, and have the ability ramp up their pace when needed. Trent Boult was especially impressive. He bowls with pace, and is capable of moving the ball away and back in to right hander with control. Southee was also brilliant throughout the series and has really come into his own of late. Wagner was always probing. As their bowling coach, Shane Bond surely deserves heaps of credit for these performances.

Of course, one must raise one’s hat to McCullum. He was always a flashy player, so what was most admirable about his 300 was how out of character it was. If there was ever a captain’s knock, his was it. His partnership with Watling was not simply great, it was epic, nearly on par with the Dravid – Laxman partnership in Calcutta 2001. As he walked off on Day 4, McCullum was batting on 281, which makes this an entirely appropriate analogy. The only difference is that the Dravid – Laxman partnership won India a Test, whereas this partnership simply avoided defeat, so in the annals of the game the former must still rank as the greater one. Still, McCullum’s was one of the best innings in Test history, plain and simple. What guts, what courage, what patience! The atmosphere at the Basin Reserve when he got to 300 was truly special. I also raise my hat to the dour Watling, who did his bit and showed real grit and determination. He reminds me of Lee Germon, an underrated but valuable New Zealand keeper-batsman of the 1990s.

For all of McCullum’s heroics, Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor provide the backbone of this batting line-up. I am especially impressed with Williamson. He is a beautiful driver of the ball and reminds me of Michael Vaughan.  The three together constitute potentially the best NZ middle-order ever. Neesham’s batting was also impressive, especially his ability to counter-attack, and I see him establishing himself in the top 6 more than I do Corey Anderson.  Anderson has shown that he is a fine one-day player, but does he have the patience to play Test cricket? Is he capable of a 100 in 200 balls? Or is he another Shahid Afridi? Neesham is also a better bowler than Anderson, so I see him emerging as NZ’s number 1 all-rounder going forward. NZ’s only problem at the moment is their opening combination. We’ve probably seen the last of Peter Fulton at the international level, with Tom Latham likely to take his place as opener in the West Indies. If they can sort out their top order problems, this will turn into a quality side. And that is good for the world of Test cricket.