India’s 500th Test beginning at the Green Park ground against New Zealand on Thursday will also be the first of their long home season.
All eyes are on the ground and a pitch that is not lush green but at the same time not expected to prove a rank turner that invited heavy criticism during the last home series, a 3-0 win over South Africa late last year. The man who will matter the most, off-spinner R Ashwin and his teammates made a beeline to the pitch for an inspection, chatting with the curator.
New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson gave a knowing smile at the pre-match media conference, which only added fuel to the speculation that had surfaced after Ashwin’s visit to the central square. “We would have loved to have the Kotla pitch turn a bit more,” Williamson said, referring to the three-day warm-up game against Ranji champions, Mumbai, which ended in a draw. The Kiwis’ biggest concern will be the turning ball on a spiteful pitch.
However, what came as a surprise was India’s concerns over spin, owing to their decreasing comfort against it. It was exposed in the Galle Test last year, and against South Africa.
“I won’t call it a concern, but it is an area we can improve,” India captain Virat Kohli said. “We lost a Test in Sri Lanka where we couldn’t play spin. So much was being built on how we can’t play away from home. There was so much focus on playing abroad that we kept focussing on (playing) pace bowling and didn’t pay too much attention to spin.”
On a close look, India’s batting lineup is yet to give that settled look. Barring Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and to an extent Murali Vijay, no one else’s place is certain. On Wednesday, opener KL Rahul was in action on the field, which suggested that he may get the nod over Shikhar Dhawan.
The Delhi left-hander hasn’t quite replicated Virender Sehwag as he was expected to. Neither has he provided stability at the top of the order. He has played some decent knocks, looked fluent at times, but has fallen short as far as Test requirements are concerned.
Cheteshwar Pujara, the man anointed as No 3, is trying to get back into the fold and give a good account of himself after redemption at domestic level. Rohit Sharma, his replacement, is struggling to get a hang of the long format.
While Kohli spoke about India’s concerns at playing spin, the home batsmen can be tested by left-arm paceman Trent Boult’s swing early on.
India’s last series success at home, against South Africa, was built mainly on substandard pitches that produced drudgery instead of stroke play. While the Proteas batsmen could never shake off the web of spin, the India batsmen’s poor show escaped scrutiny due to the resounding 3-0 series win.
India will need to be on guard as the Kiwis will also field at least two spinners, surely better than the South Africans.
A confident Virat says his batsmen have worked hard since then. “We are trying to play longer against spin in the nets. We are practicing little things --- the sweep shot, playing off the back foot, stepping out. We want to cover all the bases if we are to become a champion team.”
To be fair to India, the Kiwis too don’t have a formidable line-up despite recent successes. In fact, no team in the world except England has a settled batting line-up for Tests.
So, as of now, it is advantage India.