Test series these days – ones between sides at close to full strength – start along predictable lines. Home sides are usually so dominant that they are overwhelming favourites or they are so weak that strong sides such as India can steamroll them. Draws are hardly a possibility either. Rarely comes along a series where a proper victory march comes across a fortress that has stood tall for years without looking that formidable once.
In New Zealand over the next two weeks, anything is possible: 2-0, 0-2, 1-0, 0-1, 1-1, 0-0. For two excellent pace-bowling units, the conditions will remain a challenge, making draws a distinct possibility. Don’t go by New Zealand’s annihilation in Australia, these sides are pretty evenly matched. If India have arguably the best all-conditions bowling attack, New Zealand’s quicks know how to get wickets at home better than anyone else. The same bowlers that seemed pedestrian in Australia where you need to bash the hard length will be effective with their kiss-the-surface swing. Or at least they won’t suffer in comparison with the opposition quicks as much as they did in Australia.
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That doesn’t mean India don’t have the attack to take wickets in New Zealand. Just that in these conditions, their added advantages over a slightly limited New Zealand attack will not be apparent. It is in the second innings that their familiarity with the conditions has tended to trump their opponents. Test cricket in New Zealand is played in the reverse with batting getting progressively better on pitches that don’t break up, and it is in those second innings that New Zealand’s bowlers have found ways to dismiss oppositions. This is when New Zealand bowlers have managed to average in the mid-20s since December 2013, but one of the key components of that attack, Neil Wagner, will be missing for the season opener at Basin Reserve as he awaits the arrival of his child, and the other, Trent Boult, has had no competitive cricket since breaking his right hand in Australia.
In most other places, India would start as favourites, but at home, New Zealand have lost just two Tests in their last 14 series, a record second only to India’s at home. Then again, India haven’t lost a series anywhere since the 4-1 reverse in England in 2018. Let there be no further ado then.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand LLLDW
In the spotlight
Since December 2013, when this New Zealand team started coming together, Trent Boult has been the second-best to Wagner in second innings. The importance of a successful return for him cannot be overstated for New Zealand. These are the series you play for, he has said, to get players such as Virat Kohli out.
If you want to identify a point of difference, look no further than Jasprit Bumrah. In his brief Test career, Bumrah has tended to get the better of every challenge the conditions have thrown at him. He has the hyperextension, he has the deceptive pace, he has all the other bowling tricks, and he has a sharp bowling mind.
Kyle Jamieson will become New Zealand’s 279th Test player as he replaces Wagner. By leaving Matt Henry out of the XII, New Zealand have made it clear they are looking for a Wagner-like point of difference in the second innings. Jamieson brings those hard lengths and extra bounce with his height. Depending on what they read of the pitch of the morning of the match, New Zealand will choose between Daryl Mitchell and Ajaz Patel, the lone spinner in the squad.
New Zealand: 1 Tom Latham, 2 Tom Blundell, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 BJ Watling (wk), 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Daryl Mitchell/Ajaz Patel, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Kyle Jamieson, 11 Trent Boult
As you would expect with visiting teams, equations are not simple for India. However, there is great news for them in the sooner-than-expected return of Ishant Sharma after he had torn a ligament in his ankle in December. After a long bowling session in the nets two days from the Test, Sharma didn’t bowl in the nets on match eve; instead he was put through a fitness test. Clearly, India want to be sure. If he doesn’t make it, Umesh Yadav is the favourite to take his spot.
India seem to have settled with the opening combination of Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal. With fewer vagaries in New Zealand pitches, India seem to be going with the batting prowess of Rishabh Pant ahead of the wicketkeeping purity of Wriddhiman Saha. Unlike New Zealand, India are sure to play at least one spinner. If they do play only one, R Ashwin is the favourite from the trends in the warm-up game and in the nets. He could use the wind to his advantage.
Given how difficult it is to pick 20 wickets at Basin Reserve, there might be temptation to play both the spinners and form a second lower middle-order of Ravindra Jadeja, Pant and Ashwin, but this India is slightly different from the one that used to take such risks in the first Test of a series.
India (probable): 1 Mayank Agarwal, 2 Prithvi Shaw, 3 Cheteshwar Pujara, 4 Virat Kohli (capt), 5 Ajinkya Rahane, 6 Hanuma Vihari, 7 Rishabh Pant (wk), 8 R Ashwin, 9 Ishant Sharma/ Umesh Yadav, 10 Mohammed Shami, 11 Jasprit Bumrah
Pitch and conditions
The novelty of telling the pitch apart from the outfield in New Zealand has long worn off. The 15-18mm of grass makes for a menacing look, but the pitch should become friendly after early exchanges. Except for the general windiness, perfect weather conditions for Test cricket have been forecast after two days of intermittent rain in the lead-up to the match.
Stats and trivia
In 28 Tests in New Zealand since December 2013, teams have decided to field after winning the toss on 25 occasions. They have won 12 and lost eight of these Tests. In the rest of the world, over the same period, teams have decided to field in 58 out of 253 Tests.
Kohli averages 66 against Boult, and 46.5 against Southee in Tests. His average against Wagner, who is missing the first Test, is 20.
Ross Taylor will become the first player to 100 matches in each international format.
“It’s about bringing the focus to the smaller steps rather than some of the loftier goals that can be achieved, but you do need to take care of the next moment rather than you getting too far ahead of yourselves. As a unit, it was a tough series [in Australia] in terms of a result to swallow but you know you can’t change the past but you can use it definitely to improve as individuals and as a team.”
Kane Williamson looks to bounce back from the sweep in Australia
“It doesn’t matter how much patience the opposition has. Then we obviously have to show more patience than them. We can’t prepare in a manner that New Zealand might be more patient than other teams and then put pressure on us. Our fitness levels are such and concentration levels are such now that we can compete against anyone and anywhere in the world.”
Virat Kohli on a possible battle of attrition