With the WTC approaching, the Patriot takes a look at the preparedness and chances of the Indian side against New Zealand
It was decided then and there in Gabba, Brisbane, Australia, when Team India defeated a full-strength home side without their first-choice playing eleven and also in the absence of its regular skipper, Virat Kohli.
It was just beginning of the year 2021, precisely January 19, when two of India’s new stars, Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar, breached the Australian fortress at Gabba to Australia’s 31 Test unbeaten streak in Brisbane by chasing down a mammoth 326-run target. This victory has certainly removed the tag of “anxious travellers” from the back of every Indian player. And that’s the reason when India reached the World Test Championship final, no cricket follower around the world was asking any questions. Rather, there was only appreciation coming from all corners for the most-worthy finalists.
With the WTC final starting on June 18 at Southampton in England, this new age Indian team is once again ready to take on world’s No 1 Test team, New Zealand. Despite all odds, from getting no match practice to facing a side which has already played two Test matches against the host country, England, Team India is in no way in any mood to discuss all these adversities. Rather, Virat Kohli and boys are more eager to indulge in mind games against Kiwis by discussing how summer of 2020 changed the fortunes of this GenX of India.
Journey to WTC final
In fact, the same Kiwi side crumbled 3-0 before Australia just before India reversed the trend after being dumped and dusted for 36 in Adelaide inside two-and-half days.
Looking at their will to fight, and players who rise to the occasion in every difficult situation, right now Team India at the WTC final is definitely a better team overseas than New Zealand. However, both sides have shown utmost dominance at home. If India dumped South Africa, Bangladesh and England on home turfs, New Zealand thrashed West Indies and Pakistan in their backyards.
The challenge came in the form of away games. While India swept the series in West Indies 2-0, they tasted a similar defeat at the hands of Black Caps. Kiwis, on the other hand, had fought hard to achieve a 1-1 parity in Sri Lanka.
Acclimatisation & practice
With the India squad confined to quarantine ever since reaching England on June 2, New Zealand have so far played two five-day Test matches against the hosts.
The victory in the second Test came at a point when Kiwis were playing without six of their regulars, including their skipper Kane Williamson. This may have made them favourites going into the WTC final, but Indian batting looks much stronger on paper.
Only comfort for India is that the WTC final is being played at Southampton where history has suggested that spinners have a lot for them than the seamer friendly London green tops.
The Ageas Bowl has got this opportunity to host WTC final chiefly because it has an in-house hotel and is therefore ideally suited to meet the biosecurity requirements of both teams. This venue has been the second-most spin-friendly English venue in Tests. And don’t read much into that as this venue also happens to be the second-most pace-unfriendly venue in England.
Even if Indian fast bowlers are quick, the Kiwi pace department has more variety in their attack and are better swingers of the red cherry. That leaves India with a tried and tested formula of putting both Ravindra Jadeja and R. Ashwin into the attack.
Looking at the history of India’s performances at this particular venue, the Virat Kohli-led outfit has played two matches at the Rose Bowl in Southampton and has lost both the matches.
It was Moeen Ali’s eight wickets which was instrumental in a crushing victory for England in 2014, and bettering that with match figures of nine for 134 in a tighter contest in 2018, which could have swung in a different direction had Ashwin been fully fit.
Weather holds the key
Anyone who has played County cricket in England, understands the challenge before batsmen in the first half of the English summer. Batting on even flatter pitches in England becomes tricky if there are overcast conditions. And that’s where a strong Indian batting line-up will be tested by Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson.
Jamieson, in particular, is not an express pace bowler like Kagiso Rabada or Pat Cummins but he extracts bounce and is very accurate with his line and length and can create problems for batsmen with his high release points. And if skipper Williamson opts to play with two left-arm pacers, including Wagner alongside Boult, the likes of Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli himself could find it difficult to defend under overcast conditions.
During India’s only series defeat during the WTC cycle on their 2019-20 tour of New Zealand, there was only this pace factor chiefly responsible for 2-0 loss. Jamieson, in his debut Test in Wellington, got prized wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli amongst his total four. The remaining three experienced pacers along with medium-pacer Colin de Grandhomme proved too much to tackle for a long Indian batting line-up.
That’s probably the reason why the Kiwi skipper has left out spinner Mitchell Santner out of their 15 for the WTC final. But the Black Caps have a genuine seam bowling combination including that of De Grandhomme and Matt Henry.
The Indian side still hopes that the likes of Pant and Jadeja, who have shown that they don’t bat under any kind of pressure or pre-determination, could well be the gamechangers along with new comer Shubman Gill. Indian pacers have also wreaked havoc in the opponents’ camp in recent years. Jasprit Bumrah or Mohammad Shami are the best in the business while Ishant Sharma has developed his wicket-taking capabilities with the experience and age. And who can doubt Mohammed Siraj’s ability after watching him using his swing and pace effectively against Aussies.
Going by pure stats, Indian fast bowlers in the last five years have picked up 494 wickets in 55 matches at an average of 24.6 and a strike rate of 49.4. The Kiwi seamers, in the same period, have taken 525 wickets at an average of 26.20 and a strike rate of 55.40.
Winning formula, bat longer
With cricketing conditions in England similar to those in New Zealand, the Black Caps definitely start with an edge over India. But India can overcome this one factor if their batsmen can bat longer and patiently against the new ball. In the last series in New Zealand where India lost 2-0, the highest score that Indian batsmen could reach in three Tests was 242. This is a different matter that our bowlers also made their batsmen struggle, but they scored a bit more to win the series.
Indian batters learnt one thing from that series in New Zealand, and that was to play a bit closer to the body. Chasing balls in swinging condition is something that cost Indians the most. Rohit Sharma as opener needs to carry his good form in England. He can be a gamechanger for India because of his ability to hit hard and hit big. Shubman Gill has shown in Australia how good he can be on wickets where the ball is doing a bit more.
Off late, Gill has struggled outside off stump but hopefully he has worked on his technique and footwork to handle the pressure of international cricket. Pujara again will be India’s backbone and Virat will be looking to him to block one end during the WTC final.
Virat’s own record in England is a mixed bag. But he has certainly done better here than in windy seaming conditions of New Zealand. Though he averages just 36 in England, that is shockingly the best amongst top Indian batting line-up. Rahane has a lot to prove to his critics. The way he batted in the initial phase of his career outside India, has now been neutralised with his recent failures.
But India’s biggest asset is none other but Brisbane hero, Rishabh Pant. The number that he bats at, if New Zealanders think they are through with the Indian batting after picking the top five, they would have made the biggest mistake and that could even cost them a WTC final.
Pant at No. 6 in Tests is not just the best but the most destructive at present. He has already shown his ability to change the course of a match, by doing so twice in his short career till date. And who knows, if this wicketkeeper-batsman could well be the difference between the two evenly-matched sides!