Among a certain section of Indian cricket fans, there is the temptation to see the upcoming three-Test series against New Zealand as the appetiser for the main courses to follow against England (five Tests) and Australia (four).
But if you run through the squads, and especially the quality of the spin bowling, New Zealand have perhaps the best chance of inflicting a first home defeat on India since England triumphed 2-1 in 2012.
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As much as the vital runs made by Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen, that success was underpinned by the immaculate offspin of Graeme Swann, ably supported by the left-arm wiles of Monty Panesar. Swann has since retired, while Panesar is battling the gremlins in his mind. England’s spin larder is now so bare that Gareth Batty has earned a recall 11 years after playing his last Test.
You cannot say the same of New Zealand. Ish Sodhi, Mitchell Santner and Mark Craig may not have imposing statistics early on in their careers, but between them, they tick off every requirement – legspin, left-arm spin and offspin. When India played them on a spin-friendly surface in Nagpur during the World Twenty20 last March, Santner and Sodhi were instrumental in sending the tournament favourites hurtling to a heavy defeat.
The spinners will be under additional scrutiny now that Tim Southee’s ankle-ligament strain has ruled him out of the Test series. The last time New Zealand toured, in 2012, Southee took 7 for 64 in the first innings in Bangalore, and then dismissed Sachin Tendulkar in the second in a tightly contested game that India edged by just four wickets.
Trent Boult had a poor series then, and the pressure will be on him and Neil Wagner, the bustling left-armer born in Pretoria, to do some early damage against an Indian line-up that struggled for runs even while routing South Africa 3-0 last season. The portents were not good during the warm-up game against Mumbai in Delhi, as Kaustubh Pawar and Suryakumar Yadav took hundreds off them. Yadav, in particular, gave them a caning, scoring 103 from just 86 balls.
The main headline from the warm-up game, however, concerned another Mumbai batsman. Rohit Sharma was drafted in for the third Test against West Indies last month, and scored 9 and 41 before watching the rainfall in the fourth and final Test in Trinidad. Cheteshwar Pujara was one of those dropped to accommodate Rohit, and when both were asked to play in the Duleep Trophy this month, it was seen by many as a duke-off to see who would take the last middle-order spot in the XI.
It turned out to be no contest. Pujara made 166, 31 and 256 not out in three innings. Rohit managed just 30 and 32 not out. Against New Zealand in Delhi, he made a patchy 18 before being stumped off Sodhi’s bowling. It will take an extraordinary leap of faith from the selectors for him to retain his place at Pujara’s expense.
India will also depend heavily on their spinners to ask questions of a New Zealand line-up with very little experience of such conditions. Ravichandran Ashwin is the unquestioned leader of the bowling pack, while Ravindra Jadeja’s quick-and-flat left-arm spin can be devilishly hard to confront on helpful surfaces. Amit Mishra, with his old-style loop, provides the leg-spin threat.
If Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane bat as they have over the past couple of seasons, with timely support from Pujara and the likes of Lokesh Rahul, India should win with something to spare.
You have to go back to November 1988 for New Zealand’s last Test win in India – they have won just two of 31 matches – and it will need a Nagpur-style meltdown from the home side for that statistic to change.
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