India's ongoing tour of New Zealand has been a bit of a roller coaster ride for cricket fans in the country.
In the T20 international series that kicked off the tour, India blanked the Kiwis 5-0 with some unbelievable performances. But the Kiwis came back strongly in the following One Day Internationals (ODIs) winning all three games.
Hence, one can safely state that the Test matches, which commenced on February 21, would hold the key to decide the superior side.
The purists would certainly sense an element of poetic justice in the oldest and longest format of the sport being called up on to decide the better of the two sides in a contest involving all three versions of the game.
India's previous performances
This brings one to think how India had performed during their earlier visits to the New Zealand.
From their first visit in early 1968, as part of the twin tour to Australia and New Zealand, India had toured the country 10 times prior to the current tour.
While the first visit had only Test matches, the two sides started playing ODIs from the next tour in 1975-76, while T20 internationals made their appearance in the itinerary from 2008-09.
The 2018-19 tour tour did not feature any Test matches. Instead, it had only T20 Internationals and ODIs.
Tour to New Zealand is considered to be a difficult one for all cricket playing nations. The conditions are markedly different from that in other parts of the cricketing world, with it being very cold even in the peak of summer in southern hemisphere. The wind that blows across some of the the grounds, particularly at Basin Reserve, Wellington, is bitingly cold, making it difficult for spin bowlers to get a proper grip on the ball.
Further, the amount of grass that curators tend to leave on the pitches, especially on those prepared for Test matches, pose a huge challenge for batsmen, whose technique for playing a moving and seaming cricket ball would be challenged to the hilt.
India recorded their first-ever overseas Test victory at Dunedin in New Zealand on February 20, 1968. The five-wicket win was scripted by off-spinner Erappalli Prasanna, who claimed six wickets for 94 runs in the second innings. Prasanna followed this with 18 wickets in the remaining three Tests. Eventually, India had won the series 3-1. Indian cause was served well by their batsmen, led by Ajit Wadekar, skipper Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Chandu Borde, while Russi Surti and Bapu Nadkarni chipped in with good performances with both bat and ball. Unfortunately, this exceptional achievement of bearding the Kiwis in their own den did not win the appreciation that it deserved from the followers nor has it been given due regard by cricket historians.
India won the first Test when they visited New Zealand in January 1976. Sunil Gavaskar, deputing as captain for Bishen Bedi, scored a century as did Surinder Amarnath, who was making his Test debut. But the star turn was again provided by Prasanna, who ran through the Kiwi batting line up in the second innings to pick up eight wickets, conceding only 76 runs. After the second Test was drawn, New Zealand struck back in the last match, where they defeated India by an innings and 33 runs. Richard Hadlee, who was to evolve into one of the most feared bowlers of all time, was the wrecker-in-chief, scalping seven wickets for just 27 runs in the second innings as Indian batting crumbled to be dismissed for 81 runs.
India could not win a Test match during the next five tours - 1981, 1990, 1994, 1998-99 and 2002 – to New Zealand. While Kiwis won the three series comprising three matches that took place in 1981, 1990 and 1998-99 by identical margins of 1-0, the visitors were defeated 0-2 in the two-Test series in 2002. The sole Test that was played during the 1994 visit was drawn. Even the much acclaimed side, led by Saurav Ganguly that had won Test series in Pakistan and recorded wins in Australia and West Indies, were forced to bite the humble pie when they visited New Zealand in 2002. The manner in which the side was blanked out 0-2 shocked Indian fans and led to some serious churning within the squad.
Sachin ends win drought
India ended this win drought in the 2009 series. The side, led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, recorded a Test victory after 1976. This win came in the first Test played at Dunedin, which also ensured that India won the three Test series 1-0. The architect behind this victory was Sachin Tendulkar, who scored a brilliant 160 in the first innings that helped the side to set up a huge lead in the first innings and carried India to a 10-wicket victory. This was also the series where Gautam Gambhir came into his own as a Test batsman, scoring back-to-back centuries in the last two matches. His innings of 137, off 436 balls, wherein he spent almost 11 hours (643 minutes) at the crease helped India to escape with a draw in the second Test. Gambhir scored 167 in the second innings of last Test, where India came close to a victory but the eighth-wicket pair of New Zealand held out to secure a draw.
India also won the ODI series by a 3-1 margin, while New Zealand scored victory in both the T20 internationals played during this visit.
India lost the first Test of the two-match series in 2014 by a narrow margin of 40 runs.
This series would go down in cricket history for the batting exploits of Brendan McCullum, who scored 224 in first Test and followed it up with 302 in the second game.
In the first match, the double century of McCullum was instrumental in the host side setting up a big total that resulted in the narrow win while in the second, his innings helped them to stave off a defeat.
This was also the first triple hundred to be scored by a Kiwi batsman in Test cricket. From the Indian side, Ajinkya Rahane scored his first century in Tests, while Ishant Sharma was the pick amongst the bowlers, bagging a total of 15 wickets with six wicket hauls in an innings in both Tests.
Kiwis on top
Thus it can be seen out of the nine Test match series played between the two sides during the 10 Indian visits, New Zealand won five, while the visitors emerged victorious twice and the remaining two ended without a clear winner.
This would show that it is foolhardy to consider the Kiwis as easy meat, especially when taking them on in home conditions. Even the redoubtable West Indies side under Clive Lloyd, that had lorded over all other Test match playing sides were forced to face the ignominy of losing a Test series in this country, when they toured in early 1980.
New Zealand is a country with a population of less than 50 lakh, where, as former Indian skipper Mohamed Azharuddin put it famously, sheep outnumber human beings.
Their preferred sport is rugby, from where the term "black caps" which is used to denote their national side emanates. Despite their genial and friendly nature and the tag of being the "eternal bridesmaid of international cricket", they are proud and highly competitive on the cricket field and do not give up easily.
Their cupboard may not boast of many trophies and titles but they are amongst the most difficult sides to beat in home conditions.
One feature that has been witnessed in matches played in New Zealand in recent past is that wickets tend to ease out and become more placid as the match progresses, unlike in the Indian sub continent, where the pitches become more difficult to bat on after the first three days.
Hence, old fashioned virtues such as patience and building an innings brick by brick would come in more handy while playing here than flamboyant stroke making.
Indian batsmen, on their part, would be required to not only tighten their technique against the moving ball, but also fortify their temperament to occupy the crease and play long innings.
The Test matches against New Zealand promise to provide top class entertainment to the connoisseurs of the game. The mettle of Kohli and his boys would be tested to the full in the days ahead and one hopes that they would be able to raise their game sufficiently to emerge winners in this close contest.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat.)