Fresh-faced but India favourites against Kane’s men

  • The hosts wouldn’t mind a 2016 encore when a win in Kanpur v NZ sparked a winning spree.
India's Umesh Yadav bowls as coach Rahul Dravid looks on, during a practice session ahead of their first cricket test match against New Zealand, in Kanpur, Wednesday.(PTI)
India's Umesh Yadav bowls as coach Rahul Dravid looks on, during a practice session ahead of their first cricket test match against New Zealand, in Kanpur, Wednesday.(PTI)
Published on Nov 24, 2021 06:53 PM IST
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Test eves in Kanpur are chaotic delights. Stadium walls smelling of fresh paint, barricaded roads clear of cattle and encroachers, towering scaffoldings displaying rival captains and an assortment of vendors selling cheering gear speak of an impending carnival.

Green Park, the obvious centre of this scramble, throbs in eager anticipation. Gun-toting policemen struggle to get a glimpse of their cricketing heroes, broadcasters scurry around with giant equipment, rickety wifi whimsically wakes to life, a drone buzzes overhead, and out of nowhere, multiple television sets pop out to help the scribes even as a nonchalant workman hammers last remaining nails in some far corner. Test cricket is back in one of India's oldest centres, and the city couldn't be readier.

The theme of fresh starts manifested itself in the India nets too on Wednesday, as regulars Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant, Mohammed Shami, and Japrit Bumrah made way for the new guard. Enter Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer. Welcome back, Wriddhiman Saha, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav.

Wagner simulation

Wednesday's nets were quite revealing. Iyer stood a foot outside his off stump and swatted a pull from left-handed throwdown specialist Nuwan Seneviratne that went flying over skipper Ajinkya Rahane, batting in the adjacent net. At first sight, Iyer's unusual guard appeared an anomaly, but as the drill went on, the probable reason became clearer.

Iyer is an aggressive middle-order batsman who doesn't quite enjoy the short ball. In white-ball formats, he is often seen moving towards the leg side and slapping short-pitch balls square of the wicket on the off side. Red ball cricket, though, demands a more sustainable strategy.

Balls reared towards his ribs, armpit and left ear, and Iyer kept pulling, sometimes off his front foot. There was no notable effort to duck, sway, or fend.

The uncomfortable angle from a left-armer bowling over the wicket — an obvious simulation to tackle Kiwi warhorse Neil Wagner—- will be put to test when the right-handed batter will pad for the first time in India whites on Thursday.

“Shreyas Iyer will make his Test debut tomorrow. As you know, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, and KL Rahul are missing the series, so it presents a great opportunity to youngsters to make an impression,” said Rahane in the pre-match press conference.

Wagner, who has 229 wickets from 54 Tests, uses short ball as his stock delivery. Not known for his pace, the 35-year-old troubles the best in business with his remarkable precision and subtle variations of speed and length. Against India, in the World Test Championships (WTC) final dominated by his teammate Kylie Jamieson, Wagner accounted for Shubman Gill, Ravindra Jadeja, and Rahane. His crowning glory, however, was a relentless assault on Steven Smith in Australia during the 2019-20 series Down Under.

Then, having worked out a leg-side trap for Smith, he unleashed a barrage of bouncers that not only dismissed Smith a number of times, but also brought down his scoring rate dramatically. The final stats of Wagner vs Smith duel read: 116 balls bowled, 14 runs, 4 wickets. Smith's scoring rate in that series, 34.13, remains the slowest of his Test career.

On batting-friendly Indian tracks, New Zealand will be well-served by an in-form Wagner who seamlessly oscillates between aggressive and defensive roles with the old and new balls.

Iyer, who burst on the national scene with a 1321-run Ranji season in 2015-16 — still the fourth most productive season in Ranji history — last played a first-class match over two-and-a-half years back. That Irani Cup tie against then Ranji Trophy champions Vidarbha saw a breezy half-century from him in the second innings, but his teammate, a certain Hanuma Vihari, stole the show with a century in each innings (114 and 180*). Vihari, inexplicably not considered for this series, is in South Africa with the India A side, while Iyer will become 303rd Test cricketer for India, 10 days before his 27th birthday.

Having made an encouraging start to the new WTC cycle with a series lead in England, India would like to continue good form on home turf. The last time Green Park hosted a Test was in 2016, incidentally, against New Zealand. Then, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja accounted for 16 Kiwi wickets as India coasted to a 197-run win on the fifth day. The key characters are likely to remain the same.

"The pitch will offer turn in the afternoon. We get good sunshine at this time of the year, which means the pitch will break once the moisture evaporates. There will be some swing and seam movement for the fast bowlers in the morning session. The match will last the distance," said curator Shiv Kumar.

Rahane’s struggles

India are expected to field a six-batsman-five-bowler combination, including three spinners and two frontline pacers. Although Rahane didn't reveal the final make-up of the XI, a look at India's nets session offered enough indications. Suryakumar Yadav did not bat while Iyer got decent practice. Spin-bowling all-rounders Ashwin and Jadeja bowled and batted, and off-spinner Jayant Yadav had a prolonged bowling session too; he once bowled Rahane through the gate with a classic off-spinner.

“I can't say about the combination just yet. I am not too sure about it. Generally, in India, pitches are low and slow, so we'll pick our team accordingly,” said Rahane.

Yadav's inclusion as the third spinner, however, is extremely unlikely as it would be hard to look past Axar Patel, especially after his 27-wicket haul in the three-Test home series against England earlier this year. Patel didn't bowl on Wednesday but that could be a move to rest him after he played three T20Is in five days last week.

Shubman Gill was at his usual eye-catching self, defending solidly and attacking with assurance. Alongside him, Agarwal faced throwdowns from batting coach Vikram Rathour, before taking some heat from Umesh Yadav and Prasidh Krishna.

Pujara was seen honing his famed defence, while wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha hoisted the spin from Yadav and net bowlers to far corners of the field. The only batter who genuinely appeared to struggle was Rahane. Besides being bowled by off-spinner Yadav, he was knicked off by Krishna who also rapped him in the ribs with short balls directed at his body. Fidgety defence was interspersed with tentative drives, and the Mumbai batsman generally inspired little confidence.

"I am not too bothered about my form," he would say later. "I like to stay in the present, and at present, I am contributing to team's cause. Contribution doesn't always mean scoring hundreds. Sometimes, 40s, 50s, and 60s are good enough. I am extremely grateful and blessed to be leading the Indian team and I would like to keep doing my best," the 33-year-old added.

Make what you want from that statement, but the numbers narrate a tale of their own. His last ton came in December 2020 in Melbourne, where he picked the team from the morass of 36-all out in Adelaide and turned the series around. However, it has been all downhill thereafter. This year, Rahane's 11 Test matches have yielded only two fifties. In the last four years, Rahane's average exceeded his career average of 39.93 only once, in 2019. This year, his batting average reads 19.57.

His middle-order colleague Cheteshwar Pujara is also going through a crunch time, having scored just two fifties in his last 10 innings. "We (Pujara and himself) are not worried. We know our gameplans well. The key is to keep things simple and back ourselves," said Rahane.

Come Thursday, his belief and skills will be put to test as a 75 per cent capacity crowd at Green Park will end its five-year wait for Test cricket. Back in 2016, the victory in Kanpur sent India on a roll as Virat Kohli's men trounced New Zealand, England, Bangladesh, and Australia at home. Having just started a fresh WTC cycle, India wouldn't mind an encore.


    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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