If swing and bounce is what worries India batsmen in the first Test against New Zealand, the hosts are wary of the damage India can cause if the pitch affords seam movement. In the ODI series, the visiting team’s biggest weakness was the inability to provide breakthroughs to put the Kiwi batsmen under pressure.
That could well change if the bowlers, seen as India’s weakest link in the shorter format, make a mark on a lively surface. And the biggest boost to the bowlers, who looked directionless at times in the ODIs, is the arrival of Zaheer Khan.
The skilful left-arm pacer is one reason why New Zealand have made sure the Eden Park pitch does not offer much lateral movement. If his body holds up, he is one man who can repeatedly pitch the ball in the right areas and move the ball both ways. And from a team point of view, he can demand and extract efficiency from Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami.
Zaheer’s influence in the drawn Johannesburg Test was clear. The team, after the ODI series loss, was similarly downcast. But on a bouncy track, South Africa batsmen were rattled in the first innings. India were in the hunt for victory until the final stages of the game. At Eden Park, if skipper MS Dhoni wins his sixth toss in a row on this tour, it can tilt the balance.
New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum said a pitch with seam movement will play into India’s hands. “They’ve got some seamers that can ask some tough questions if the ball does go sideways. It’s no surprise that these conditions should suit us better. They’re used to wickets where the ball skids more and reverse swing comes into play.”
At the Whangarei warm-up game, his younger team mates watched expressionless as Zaheer, not willing to exert, ambled behind a ball that went for four. His bowling fitness is too precious for the team’s health. And Dhoni knows its importance.
“It’s not only motivation, it is about bringing up new plans and helping the youngsters to execute those plans,” he said on Zaheer’s contribution. And pace management will be vital, especially if the Kiwi batsmen get off to a good start. “In the subcontinent, at times the only thing fast bowlers look for are wickets. Sometimes they only have two or three spells the whole day. Over here, they have to bowl more overs. It will be a real help to the fast bowlers as he is someone who has played a lot outside the subcontinent.”
The Kiwis might be executing their plans, but their batting revolves around two men – Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor – scoring big. Williamson’s patience and ability to play off the backfoot and rotate the strike is invaluable, but Taylor is the man in red-hot form. He scored three consecutive centuries in the home series against West Indies, and two more in the final two ODIs against India. If India can remove the two batsmen early, that will for the first time put the hosts under pressure.