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.