India embarks upon a rare tour of New Zealand this month, and the team has just been announced. In the old days, whenever India toured Australia, they would also tour New Zealand. Of course travel was much tougher, so if you'd already travelled all the way to Australia, might as well hop over to New Zealand and play a few games there. These days, the cricket calendar is so crazy, and driven by marketability, that we don't travel often enough to that lovely country.
Truth be told, New Zealand might be seen as the final frontier for this Indian team. They have proved themselves capable of winning Tests (and even series, in some cases) in Australia, South Africa, England, West Indies, Pakistan, and now Sri Lanka as well. But New Zealand has always been a tough tour. Even before this tour, no less a person than Sachin Tendulkar has gone on record saying that, perhaps to manage expectations. This is despite the fact that New Zealand is a pretty weak team overall. Their top-order batting has been struggling for ages now, although their lower order (with the likes of Oram and Vettori) has bailed them out regularly. Their pace bowling doesn't appear threatening, in the tragic absence of Shane Bond. Their spin attack of Vettori and Jeetan Patel is competent but hardly one to run through an Indian batting lineup. And yet, we quiver at the thought of a Test series in New Zealand.
The reason is simple -- the Indian batting is simply untested in the conditions that prevail in New Zealand, conducive as they are to seam and swing bowling. Knowing their strength, and our weakness, it's clear that the pitches will be grassy and moist, like they were on the last Indian tour. These days, batsmen don't get to play on such pitches at all. Pitches in India were never seam-friendly of course. But even in the West Indies, England or Australia, pitches are increasingly batsman-friendly, due in no small part to the demands of one-day and T20 cricket. So I'd suspect it's not just Indian batsmen who would struggle on New Zealand pitches.
So, does this Indian team have it in them to conquer this final frontier? I think so. The bowling is not a concern really, with the likes of Zaheer, Ishant and Munaf Patel perfectly capable of exploiting the seaming conditions. But that's never been a problem in New Zealand really. In helpful conditions, even "ordinary" bowlers can produce the wickets. Back in the 1980s for example, Chetan Sharma and Roger Binny had done well in England. Venky Prasad did superbly in South Africa in helpful conditions, as did Sreesanth more recently. No, it's really the batting that's going to be tested.
Now my prediction is that Rahul Dravid will reclaim that sobriquet of "The Wall" -- he's perfectly equipped technically to succeed in seaming conditions. Laxman is a bit less certain of his off stump, but he's still likely to dominate the bowling. I think he will enjoy the relatively gentle pace of the current New Zealand bowling. Sehwag is likely to struggle -- he does not enjoy playing the moving ball at all, and generally succeeds because his sheer talent at hand-eye coordination bails him out. In seaming / swinging conditions, he will be sorely tested. Much the same can be said of Yuvraj Singh. If Yuvraj is lucky, he'll come into bat at #6 with a decent score on the board and the ball having lost its shine. But I don't expect him to particularly shine on this tour.
That leaves Gambhir and Tendulkar among the top-order batsmen. Gambhir is untested in these conditions. In his early days, he was clearly susceptible outside the off stump, and often got out nicking the ball to the slip cordon. However he seems to have tightened up his technique considerably, so he stands a good chance of surviving the new ball. And given his current streak of form, if he does so, he will cash in nicely. Certainly, he looks a better bet in these conditions than Wasim Jaffer, whose natural movements leave him susceptible to the moving ball.
And finally, Tendulkar. The man has proved his ability again and again, over the years. He made those two 150s in Australia not too long ago, to shut up a lot of the critics. How long ago was that "Endulkar" headline now? And yet, and yet... despite being a big big fan of Sachin, I have to admit to nervousness over his chances in New Zealand. These days, his mindset is so completely different from those glory years. He doesn't look to dominate the bowling, and plays the survival game at least for the first 50 runs. And he doesn't survive often enough, for his talent. Look at how Brian Lara played right till his retirement. Or for that matter, Sanath Jayasuriya still does, at the age of 39. They simply trusted their ability and their bodies more than Sachin seems to. Survival isn't a great strategy on pitches where the ball seams both ways, and even innocuous bowlers like Nathan Astle or Gavin Larsen pick up wickets. I think Sachin really ought to try and dominate the bowling, but I'm almost certain that he won't attempt to. Make no mistake, in a 3 Test series, he will still succeed a couple of times using his strategy. And that might be good enough for the team to pull off a win or two, especially if a couple of the other batsmen have good series. But somehow it's less than satisfactory for old fans of Sachin like myself, who have been watching him from age 15 (I saw his Duleep debut at Wankhede, where he scored, no surprise, a century).
Having said that, I do believe that India this time around have the bowling firepower, adequate batting, and thanks to Dhoni, the belief, to win in New Zealand. It may not be generally seen as a great achievement, but I do think it will be fabulous if we can pull it off.
Notice that I've said nothing about the one-dayers or T20s. Now those formats just don't test the batsmen enough, so we might have a relatively easier time there - although New Zealand do have a decent team now, having just proved that against Australia. But ODIs are just not interesting enough these days, and T20s are starting to seem all-too-familiar, so I can't bring myself to be excited about those games. It's enough to read up a match report in the newspaper, or follow the game on CricInfo. But the Tests will be really interesting, and watchable ball-by-ball on TV.
Here's looking forward to alarm clocks going off at unearthly hours in the next month!