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A bird in hand, Dhoni leaves the second in the bush.
by Suresh Menon
Apr 08, 2009
By Suresh Menon

In the end, a series victory in New Zealand will deflect the questions that need to be asked of the Indian captain. The fact that it has come after four decades will mean that Mahendra Singh Dhoni's curiously defensive captaincy won't come under scrutiny. It was the Indian captain's inexplicable defensiveness that decided the Test in Hamilton, and not the rain. Weather forecasting may not be an exact science, but in some cricketing centres around the world - Guyana, Manchester, Wellington to take some random examples - it is wiser to believe the weatherman when he says that rain is expected. Because rain is usually expected.

Dhoni knew that rain would play a key role, yet he was not prepared for it. After making 375 on the opening day of the Test and then taking a substantial first innings lead, he decided to play safe. The bird in hand may have prevented him from looking for more, but it was only a matter of playing this like a four-day match and the two in the bush would have fallen into his hands too.

By batting on and on (and without any particular sense of urgency) in the second innings, India reduced the time pressure on the New Zealand line-up. Test cricket is as much about managing time as it is about scoring runs and taking wickets. "A huge score meant that we could keep attacking all the time," Dhoni justified after the Test. Yet, strangely, he didn't attack all the time. He didn't tell Harbhajan Singh that the bowler should stop sending down his express deliveries but flight the ball. Post-tea on the fourth day, the whole team appeared over-relaxed and almost casual, as if winning would be just a matter of turning up on the fifth day.

A 2-0 victory would have been a more correct index of the difference between the teams. India appeared only too satisfied with a 1-0 win. This is not how champion teams play, and if India aspire to knock Australia off the perch at the top, they will have to be more ruthless in their approach, more focused, and not so easily satisfied.

To beat New Zealand at home has always been a huge task. Of New Zealand's 66 Test wins, as many as 41 have been at home. That's a significant 62 percent.

Two things - three, if you include Richard Hadlee - ensured that New Zealand were virtually unbeatable at home. One was the quality of their pitches, biased in favour of the seamers, and the other was the quality of their umpiring, biased in favour of their batsmen. When an umpire pointed out to a vigorously appealing Bhagwat Chandrasekhar on an earlier Indian tour that the batsman was bowled, the bowler famously asked, "I know he is bowled, but is he out?"

With the arrival of neutral umpires, and the retirement of Hadlee, two of New Zealand's trump cards were neutralized. Their tracks continued to aid seamers, however. But in the series against India who had shown a distinct lack of comfort on such tracks in some four decades, New Zealand decided to prepare hard, batting wickets giving their own bowlers little chance. Perhaps it was the presence of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma in the visitors' squad that made up New Zealand's mind. The comparative advantage was certainly with India.

Yet, going into the final Test 0-1 down, the hosts really had to take a chance. They didn't. India were not challenged, and that must remain the epitaph of the tour for New Zealand.

 
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