By Suresh Menon
It is no coincidence that India have not won a series in New Zealand in 40 years. It is not sheer pace which has traditionally defeated Indian batsmen so much as seam movement.
About the best thing that could have happened to India in New Zealand is the loss in the final one-dayer at Auckland. Suddenly the temperament and technique of their batsmen have been called into question on a track that seamed a bit and bounced too. Another victory based on six-hitting prowess on dead tracks would have given the visitors a false sense of security and an exaggerated notion of their own powers before the start of the three-Test series.
Now it is back to the drawing board, with the realization that Test cricket will be different, and the team will have to work harder. The hosts may not be as hospitable over the longer game. The last time they visited, India lost the two-match series 0-2. Their highest score was 161; neither side crossed 100 in the first innings of the second Test. It is no coincidence that India have not won a series in New Zealand in 40 years. It is not sheer pace which has traditionally defeated Indian batsmen so much as seam movement.
This time India face what some former New Zealand players have called a 'B-grade' bowling line-up. But there is still the matter of playing straight, of judging movement, of exhibiting the art of leaving the ball - the essentials of Test cricket on a seaming track, so different from the requirements of the shorter game on a flat pitch.
Before the series began, former opener Mark Richardson had suggested that New Zealand might prepare India-friendly pitches to keep the "cricket bosses happy" and that "New Zealand cricket understand who pays the wages nowadays and this tour for the Black Caps is very much the scenario of playing your boss at golf." This was a cynical comment, but it makes the point that the best way to beat India would be to prepare seamer-friendly wickets.
Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman who struggled on that previous tour would like to erase that memory on what will most likely be their last tour of New Zealand. Even the opposition would like to see them at the top of their form. But it would be foolish if New Zealand didn’t prepare wickets to suit their own bowling. This was the side that went a whole generation without losing a home series thanks to wickets that were tailor-made for their ace bowler Richard Hadlee. Even the West Indies under Clive Lloyd lost a series in New Zealand when they were at the top of the cricketing world.
The Auckland result would have reconfirmed to New Zealand what they already suspected, that India's traditional weaknesses remain. That will give them cheer, and point the way towards preparing the kind of pitches Indian batsmen expect in that part of the world. This time, however, India have the better seam attack, and that might be a consideration.
One session's poor batting is all that is required to decide a Test series, as India discovered in Christchurch on the 1989-90 tour when in reply to 459, India collapsed to 164. Now a team that was hammered into submission has been given hope by the Auckland result. Perhaps there is something to be said for resting key players after a series has been won, for purely psychological reasons. Had New Zealand beaten an Indian team without Sehwag and Yuvraj, for instance, their morale would not have been as high as it is now.
For four decades Indian teams have struggled in New Zealand. Dhoni's men have a chance now to right the balance, and that might well be the force that drives the Test series.