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By Suresh Menon
New Zealand have always been the most popular of teams to visit India, and for a very good reason. In the years when India resided in the lower half of the world rankings, New Zealand were the one team they were confident of beating. It was also the period when great store was laid by good behaviour and what the press called ‘sporting spirit’, and New Zealanders were always a well behaved and gentlemanly outfit.
On New Zealand’s first tour here in 1955-56, Vinoo Mankad made two double centuries, and shared a long-standing world record opening partnership with Pankaj Roy. The tone had been set, and the teams played twelve Tests before New Zealand managed to win one.
In the early days (before Richard Hadlee and a bunch of medium pacers made it difficult for anyone, leave alone India, to win in New Zealand), such kindness was extended in New Zealand too. In 1968, Tiger Pataudi led India to their first-ever series win abroad. In New Zealand. This after India had been whitewashed 4-0 in Australia.
India have had nightmarish experiences in Wellington, and before that twice in one series, in Nagpur and Hyderabad. They lost in Nagpur (and whatever happened during an evening of socializing there was the beginning of the end of skipper Pataudi), and needed the inefficiency of the groundsmen in Hyderabad to get away with a draw. The newspaper photograph of skipper Graham Dowling desperately assisting in the mopping up operations so the game could resume is one of the less edifying images of Indian cricket. India made 89 in the first innings and were 76 for seven in the second chasing 268 to win when the match was called off.
In the seven years since New Zealand were last here, India have grown to be the number one Test team in the world, while New Zealand have slipped so far down that they were thumped 4-0 in a one-day series in Bangladesh.
They cannot sink any lower, which might just be the spur they need to do well in India.
It seems to be accepted universally that India will win the Test series 3-0, and that is always a dangerous presumption on which to base any strategy. Teams have gone into battle convinced that just turning up would mean victory, and paid the price. The Indian team is too experienced, too organized and too fond of saying the politically correct thing to go public with the ‘thumping’ theory, but it will be interesting to see what such an assessment will do to New Zealand.
Skipper Daniel Vettori alone has played in India before, and the medium pace attack is by and large too inexperienced to trouble the likes of Sehwag and Tendulkar and Dravid and Laxman. New Zealand’s fortunes will rest on how their batsmen, unused to tracks in the subcontinent, will play the off spin of Harbhajan Singh or the reverse swing of Zaheer Khan. India carry too many guns, but New Zealand’s biggest advantage is that they have nothing to lose. Expectations are low.
Victory has become so crucial to Indian fans that they would rather watch a one-sided win than an interesting cricket match where the fortunes swing from one team to the other over five days. There will be some support for New Zealand, the underdogs, from a fast-diminishing section of cricket watchers who want their team to win, but want the opposition to put up a good fight.
The Australia series where the first Test was in the balance till the very end and the second too was till the final day, might be too much to hope for. But it would be nice to see some of the youngsters being tested.