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By Partab Ramchand
A hard fought victory over worthy opponents. That should be the final verdict on the just- concluded three-Test series between India and New Zealand. The visitors came over as no hopers. The cynics predicted a clean sweep for a rampaging Indian team. They said there would hardly be any interest in a contest pitting the No 1 Test team against the No 8 Test team especially with India having made a clean sweep of the two match series against Australia and given their formidable record at home. But if New Zealand have traditionally missed out on having great players – with a few glorious exceptions – they are doughtiness personified. What they may lack in dynamism they make up through sheer grit and determination.
Coming to think of it the Kiwis have always proved to be tough opponents in this country. More often than not they have gone down in a three-match series only by a margin of one Test and in fact on the last tour to India in 2003 they drew both the Tests. In the first of these they ran up a total of 630 for six declared, had four batsmen getting hundreds in the same innings for the first time ever and then enforced the follow on only to be thwarted by a VVS Laxman special.
Of course it can be said that in the past the Indians were not the numero uno Test team. All the same given their recent record in India it was perhaps incorrect to write them off completely. After all one must always remember that whatever the might of the Indian batting there is always a question mark over the bowling. Over the years the strong Indian batting line-up has made up for the weaker aspect the bowling and the just-concluded series was no exception. Their role in shaping the lone win in rather helpful conditions at Nagpur notwithstanding the bowlers did not exactly cover themselves with glory and one shudders to think how they will fare in South Africa in the face of a much stronger batting line-up. One look at the bowling figures for the series and just that thought is enough send shivers down the spine of the Indian cricket fan.
Indeed it is fascinating to dwell as to how the series would have ended had New Zealand not missed a trick or two in the first Test when they had India on the ropes at 15 for five on the fourth evening. While giving full credit to India for staging a marvelous recovery after that to force an honourable draw somehow one can’t get over the feeling that India came very close to defeat on that occasion.
Looking back at the contest other than Harbhajan’s much improved batting there were hardly any plus points. The established players finished among the runs with the exception of Suresh Raina for whom I am sure the series was just an aberration. He is too good a batsman to be short of runs for too long a period and it is hoped that the selectors will give him an extended run even if Yuvraj Singh and Cheteswar Pujara are waiting on the sidelines. The bowling as I said did not cover itself with glory and again the exception was Zaheer Khan. The second spinner’s slot continues to be vacant as Pragyan Ojha has not exactly filled the bill. There are others waiting in the queue – Amit Mishra, Piyush Chawla, Ravichandran Aswin though I am not sure if the chances of a comeback for Murali Kartik are totally nil.
For all his batting feats Harbhajan can look back on the series only with mixed feelings. His bowling continues to be in decline, the zip is missing and a return of ten wickets at 42 apiece at a strike rate of 91.5 is not one expects of the country’s spin spearhead. A further cause for worry is that with his improved batting his bowling could deteriorate further and that’s the last thing India would want. The team needs Harbhajan the bowler much more than Harbhajan the batsman.
New Zealand too would recall the tour with mixed feelings. They will look back proudly on having held their own in the first two Tests against formidable opposition even if they lost the final Test on the first day itself. The batsmen acquitted themselves creditably their four hundreds comparing favourably with the Indians’ five. They also notched up the only double hundred of the series and more significantly had the only two five-wicket hauls in the contest. And in Daniel Vettori they had a captain in the best cricketing traditions – a fine player and a true gentleman.