New Zealand is the most underrated team and are underdogs in every ICC tournament.
India resume their quest to stay at the top of the Test Championship table on Friday at the Basin Reserve, traditionally a tough place for India to win or even draw.
India have played seven Test matches at this ground with four losses, two draws and a solitary win coming way back on their first trip here in 1968. The Basin Reserve is located in windy Wellington, which can be very cold and a hostile atmosphere, especially for the first-time subcontinent players.
I remember one ex-Indian Test cricketer narrating their plight during a 1976 Test match when India got knocked over for 81 in the second innings. He said they couldn’t concentrate on the game due to extreme cold, even after wearing multiple jumpers.
All the players kept their hands in their pockets most of the times and spinners could barely grip let alone spin the ball. While batting, the chilly wind went through them like a hot knife through butter. The fact that they were facing up to Sir Richard Hadlee with a red cherry in his hand was no help either!
Today’s Indian team is lot better prepared. The main batsmen have been here before in 2014. While they lost that two-Test series 1-0, they were not defeated badly. In fact, in both Tests they created chances to win.
In the first Test of that series, chasing 406 runs in the second dig, at one point India were well placed at 6-324. In the second Test in Wellington, leading by 246 runs in the first innings and reducing the home team to 5-94, the victory looked very real. Just then, Brendon McCullum decided to play the best innings of his life: a glorious triple ton that helped draw the game and win the series for his team.
The critical thing missing for India in that second innings was the fifth bowler to support Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja. That is the typical characteristic of a New Zealand wicket: it gets better to bat in the second innings, requiring more bowling resources. If you plan for a possible first-innings collapse by selecting a batsman in favour of a bowler, you may regret it in the second innings.
This is where the Indian think tank will be focusing on before this Test: which two to play from Jadeja, Ravi Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari. While there is also a toss-up between Wriddhiman Saha and Rishabh Pant for the role of a wicketkeeper, it is a straight swap without affecting the bowling resources.
I have a feeling India may go with Rishabh Pant, who may not necessarily be a better batsman than Saha in these conditions, but definitely more attacking, which is going to be critical especially in the first innings. With Pant in, Kohli can afford to have both Jadeja and Ashwin in the XI with the three pace bowlers.
However, Hanuma Vihari’s outing in New Zealand so far has produced two very decent, back-to-the-wall tons that may be hard to ignore. Perhaps being the first Test of the series, Virat Kohli may not like to take the risk and may shore up the middle order, especially as both opening batsmen will be playing for the first time in NZ.
The home team, on the other hand, is coming off a thrashing from Australia. This is their best chance to improve their position on the Test Championship table. Admittedly, India are a tough opponent, but New Zealand’s superiority at home against any team should give them a lot of confidence.
The return of Trent Boult is crucial for their chances to control the talented Indian middle order. They will surely miss Neil Wagner in this encounter, but debutant Kyle Jamieson has already raised lots of hopes with his performances in the one-day games.
On paper, both teams look equal and it appears difficult to pick a clear winner. One thing is sure though, the contest will be riveting.
It was incredibly refreshing to see both Kane Williamson and Kohli sit together on the sidelines during the final T20 game that both didn’t play. Such a thing is unheard of in today’s intensely competitive times, especially as all teams want to win the first ever Test Championship.
One thing is certain: while we may see intense competition on the field between these two sides, the atmosphere off the field will remain friendly, the way it always ought to be.
To me it seems the series may end up 1-1.