World Test Champions New Zealand face trial by spin in search for first series win on Indian soil

The familiar foes meet again. It’s only six months ago that the first cycle of the World Test Championship ended with New Zealand lifting the title. India’s perennial nemesis in ICC tournaments, New Zealand, edged them in a tense final in Southampton. They got their team selection right, they utliised the conditions better than India and executed their plans with patience and perfection.

It was a similar case five months later in the 2021 T20 World Cup where they outclassed India in a crunch match in Dubai. They reached the final but again couldn’t get the final push to lift the trophy.

And three days later, the knackered Kiwis met India again in the three-match T20I series. This time the tables had been turned as India overpowered them to achieve a 3-0 clean sweep.

Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin combined to take 41 wickets in New Zealand’s last tour to India. They will again be looking to torment the Kiwis. Sportzpics

They meet again, in a two-match Test series which will mark the beginning of the new World Test Championship cycle for defending champions Kiwis. This time it will be a totally different proposition from six months ago. Playing India in their own backyard is one of the toughest challenges in world cricket right now. The Kiwis got a glimpse of it in the T20I series itself as they struggled against the Indian spinners who took eight wickets from three matches at an average of 16.75.

The trial by spin is set to continue in the Test series. The Indian spin attack is a fire-breathing dragon at home. The English team experienced it earlier this year. And the memories of the last tour might still be fresh in the minds of the Kiwis. Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja combined to take 72 percent of the wickets (41 out of 57 wickets) from three Tests as India clean swept the Kiwis 3-0. The Kiwi batters averaged just 22.89 against spin and overall, none of their batsmen averaged more than 35.

Along with Ashwin and Jadeja, they will now have to face another lethal weapon in Axar Patel who’s had a blistering start to his career with a Player of the Series award in his debut series against England.

New Zealand have historically struggled against Indian spinners on Indian soil. Since the start of the previous decade (1 Jan 2010), they have had the third-worst batting average against spin in India of all teams (that have played more than 2 matches) at 23.75. And overall, the Kiwis have averaged the least, 24.22, against spin bowling in India.

A 3-0 defeat in the last tour doesn’t paint an accurate picture of their performance. They battled hard and were competitive unlike many who just crumble on India soil. India won the crunch moments and sessions and that made a difference.

With the relentless scheduling, there is no time to acclimatise to the conditions, especially in red-ball cricket. Three days after the T20I series, Kiwis will be back on the ground in whites for the first Test in Kanpur. No practice match. Just the net practice. And that too without additional net bowlers due to COVID-19 restrictions. It makes things tougher on Indian soil.

“When you are coming to India, you want to play as much cricket as you want to and can as well. Our preparation so far has been fantastic,” Ross Taylor said. “Been a bit different as no net bowlers have come in. Facing our bowlers as preparation has been the key. Have been lining up to face a lot of spinners. They have bowled a lot of overs. Normally, you get 10-15 net bowlers of spin to practice. Slightly different but it is what it is. Interesting challenge, both on and off the field.”

Also, they will be without the services of their joint-highest wicket-taker on their last Indian tour — the experienced Trent Boult, and opener Devon Conway who started his Test career with a double century in debut innings in England and has averaged 63 from three Tests he’s played so far.

Boult and Colin de Grandhomme made themselves unavailable for selection due to the prospect of further time in bio-secure bubbles and managed Isolation. While Conway suffered a freak injury when he struck his bat after getting dismissed against England in the T20 World Cup semi-finals.

New Zealand would require more application from the batters and them to find the perfect balance between caution and aggression through the right judgment of the conditions. An Indian tour is always a steep learning curve. The core of the NZ batting line-up — Kane Williamson, Tom Latham, Ross Taylor and Henry Nicholls — have played here five years ago and that experience might prove to be vital.

“The way we adapt to these conditions is going to be the key going forward,” Taylor said ahead of the series. “Some of the guys have played many a time here before. We’ll be looking forward to hopefully use that experience to make things slightly easier but we know it’s going to be tough.”

Taylor hit the winning runs against India in that WTC final and since then he’s not played any competitive cricket. It’s a case of being rusty but fresh as well. He will form the key part of that middle-order. He’s been the highest run-getter against India among the current lot and averages 34.80. He would surely be looking to improve on that average.

Those two high-quality innings in the WTC final once again reminded the cricketing world of the class of Williamson. A fresh Williamson, who opted to rest in the T20I series, will again be the lynchpin in the batting department for the visitors.

The Ashwin vs Williamson battle will be a fascinating one. The Indian spinner had the wood on the Kiwi captain in the last tour, dismissing him on all four occasions he batted.

A lot will depend on how the Kiwi spinners perform as well. On the last tour to India, they averaged 53.71. And there was not a single five-for from a Kiwi spinner. Overall, they have averaged 49.73 in India and would want to improve that record which could be crucial to their chances.

Ajaz Patel will be their go-to man in the spin department. Since making his Test debut in 2018, he’s been their highest wicket-taker in Asia with 22 wickets from nine innings at 28.50. Tim Southee too has done well in Asia and has the best average by a Kiwi bowler in the last five years — 20.54. His experience will be vital in absence of Boult. The Kiwis have five spin options in the squad. Patel and Will Somerville will in all probability be the two first-choice spinners.

It will be interesting to see whether the Kiwis go in with three pacers or three spinners. Historically their pacers have done better than their spinners in India. The pacers have averaged 36.47 compared to the spinners who have averaged 49.73. The third spinner’s slot will be decided between Mitchell Santner, Rachin Ravindra and Glenn Phillips. Southee will spearhead the pace attack and the other two options are Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson. Kiwi coach Gary Stead hinted that three spinners might be the way to go on Indian tracks.

“The traditional way of playing four seamers and one part-time spinner can’t be the way to go over here,” Stead said ahead of the series.

“You may see three spinners playing in this game and that will be decided once we have a look at the surface.”

Jamieson has had a good time against India and if he makes it to the eleven, not just his bowling, his lower-order batting will become crucial.

India have their own batting problems to sort out. Ajinkya Rahane will lead the side in absence of Kohli who will return for the second Test in Mumbai. Rahane himself is under pressure. He averaged just 15.57 in the England series with just one half-century. Since that 2020 Melbourne Test, he’s averaged just 19.57 and gone century-less for 19 innings.

Cheteshwar Pujara finally got some form back in England to the relief of the Indian camp. He would look to break the century duck at home which has stretched to 17 innings. The last century he got at home was way back in 2017 against Sri Lanka in Nagpur. India would want to see the two seasoned campaigners dominate the way they did in the past. Kohli too would be looking to get to that three-figure mark, having gone 56 international innings without a century. His last century came against Bangladesh in the 2019 Kolkata Test.

India have rested Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami in the series. They will also be without KL Rahul who was ruled out due to thigh strain two days prior to the series. This would mean that Shubman Gill is set to open the batting with Mayank Agarwal. He was expected to bat in the middle order with Rahul and Mayank being the openers. Suryakumar Yadav, who replaced Rahul in the squad, or Shreyas Iyer is in line to make Test debut in Kanpur and bat at No 4 in absence of Kohli.

The Kiwi bowlers will look to target that middle order.

Hanuma Vihari’s exclusion raised a lot of eyebrows. He was then added to India A squad for the South Africa tour. It’s all a bit surprising given that India have opted acclimatisation to overseas conditions over international cricket. Ishant Sharma is expected to lead the pace attack consisting of Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj and Prasidh Krishna. Jayant Yadav is the other spinner in the squad.

India have never lost a Test under Rahane’s captaincy. They have played five, won four and drawn one. The Kiwis will also need some luck to go their way. They lost all the tosses on that last tour. Batting first is important in India and Williamson would hope that he calls it right, else it could get really tough with the scoreboard pressure.

India do start off as favourites. They have been rampant at home with 13 wins in their last 13 series. They haven’t lost a series at home in the last nine years. The Kiwis haven’t won a series in India. It will take one helluva effort from New Zealand to break that Indian winning streak. Even a draw would be a massive result.

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