New Zealand’s fast bowlers are unmatched when it comes to using the short ball as a defensive option, particularly in home conditions. For the best part of India’s second innings at the Basin Reserve, the hosts’ expert use of shorter lengths on a two-paced pitch with spongy bounce turned the contest into one where both teams were playing the waiting game.
It suited New Zealand perfectly, given they had a 183-run first-innings lead. Could India have batted more proactively, and tried to put the bowlers off their plans? Their captain Virat Kohli certainly thinks they could have.
“You have to try and get into a positive frame of mind,” he said, after New Zealand had completed a ten-wicket win inside the first session of day four. “I think in Test cricket in general, you have to be in a clear state of mind. At home also, you can’t really play a lot of shots. You can’t just say that I will smash it from ball one. You have to choose which balls to hit even on turning tracks but you also have to maintain that intent when you are putting the boundary balls away.
“Also, we have to understand and accept that New Zealand bowled really, really well in this Test match in both innings, although in first innings there was a bit more assistance, but in the second innings, that’s been their strength. They set fields accordingly, get into the mind of the batsmen, and make the batsmen do something that they don’t want to.
“I think that’s a very thin line and a very delicate balance of when to attack and when to put bowlers under pressure, which we failed to do in this match, and there is no harm in accepting that. We have done that on many occasions but this was a Test match where we were not able to do it. That has got to do with partly good bowling from New Zealand and partly us not pressing that momentum on to them when required.
“It was perfect for them because they bowled well and we allowed them to bowl well for longer periods rather than doing something about it in a partnership. When Jinx (Ajinkya Rahane) started, the plan was to go positive. If we both add 70 to 80 positively, then the game changes. You have to take chances. Sometimes they don’t come off, but if you try and do that for longer periods they do tend to come off and the situation changes, which we have addressed already and something that we will keep in our mind going forward.”
According to ESPNcricinfo’s data, India’s batsmen scored 126 runs off 301 short and short-of-good-length balls across their two innings in Wellington, at a rate of 2.51 per over. New Zealand went after short and short-of-good-length balls more often, and ended up with 130 runs off 150 such balls, at 5.20 per over. They lost a wicket once every 32.5 balls with this approach, while India lost one every 75.25 balls, but the averages – 32.50 for New Zealand, 31.50 for India – ended up more or less identical.
And because they found runs so hard to come by against the shorter ball, India ended up losing wickets off errors they may not otherwise have made against fuller-length balls.
Much of India’s short bowling was to New Zealand’s lower order, who could afford to go after the bowling with their team already in the lead. When India batted, they were in situations where survival was of utmost importance. And India’s struggle to score against the shorter ball also had a lot to do with the skill of New Zealand’s bowlers in their own conditions, and an unusual pitch.
“We have faced attacks in the past as well, with a lot of variety. We played in South Africa with Morne [Morkel], [Dale] Steyn and [Vernon] Philander all in the side. So we’ve faced those kind of attacks,” Kohli said, when asked about the difficulty of a New Zealand attack containing a left-arm quick (Trent Boult), a right-arm swing bowler (Tim Southee), a 6’8″ fast bowler with steep bounce (Kyle Jamieson) and a medium-paced metronome (Colin de Grandhomme).
“But it was a strange pitch. I was talking to Kane [Williamson] as well. It wasn’t seaming around, wasn’t troubling us with swing. But it was slow, on the drier side. So you were not able to get the shots away. And I think to be honest, lack of pace is something that cost us more than something like being intimidated or being bowled out by an attack.
“It played perfectly into their plans because they feed off bowling on one spot for long periods and having fielders close in, and unless you take them on, that field is not going to change. I think the way they bowled was very accurate and the pace of the pitch also allowed them to keep bowling there because it wasn’t easy to get those shots away.
“To be honest, they did not give us any room, on the front foot or the back foot, so we have to accept that they outplayed us this game and they bowled much better than we did, and put enough pressure on us, understanding the wicket well, which you expect them to do, playing in their conditions. But I think going forward we understand what they would like to do and it’s our job as batsmen to try and disrupt it so that as soon as possible we put enough runs on the board.”
Between now and the second Test in Christchurch, which begins on Saturday, Kohli said India would try and work on ways to put New Zealand’s bowlers under pressure with a more proactive approach.
“I don’t think there is anything technical [the batsmen need to do],” he said. “It’s all about clarity of mind and taking responsibility individually when you walk out to bat. I feel as a batsman you should not wait for a message from outside to execute something in the middle. I think it’s about understanding what you want to do as a batsman, and if that doesn’t come off then you say fine, I did not do it in this innings.
“But if six-seven people can think like that, for sure two-three people will come good. So if we go with a bit of hesitation whether to play our shots or not, rather than just going for shots, then you know, analysing the execution later on, that’s a better balance that we have stuck to in the past, especially playing in away conditions.
“We are very clear with what we want to do as batsmen, that we get off to a start and we keep that momentum, we start leaving well, we start defending well, we start dropping and running well so these are things that are an outcome of a clear head. We will definitely be much more positive.
“There’s no doubt about it, especially in the first innings. We will try and put their bowlers under pressure and try and make them do something different rather than them making us do something different. I think as international cricketers, we are good enough, and that’s why we are here, and we should be able to find that balance and we definitely take this as a challenge to put in a better batting performance next time.”