With Virat Kohli resting post T20 World Cup, the marketing of Indian cricket for the casual fan has centred on #newera in reference to the new coach Rahul Dravid, which is a disfavour to the cricket and also to Dravid himself, who is the last person to crave attention. No press conference, no spot interview, no special programming has gone without trying to look for the Dravid impact in even the most trivial things.
Those trying to bring Dravid down have been complaining about no experimentation in the T20 XI without paying any mind to the fact that the series was still alive. They’ve been questioning why the team isn’t batting first to get better at setting totals, even though as ODI captain he made them bat second to get better at chasing. There’s even some mumbling over how often the cameras pan to him. On the charitable side of things, his humility has come up, as has his invitation to legends of the game to hand out caps to debutants. His offspin in the nets has been played on loop.
It is fitting then that on the first day of Test cricket with Dravid as coach, we learnt nothing new about Test cricket. On his first day of Test cricket in Asia, Kyle Jamieson showed he is a phenomenal Test bowler, which we knew. Tim Southee surprised nobody with his wily use of angles and various kinds of grips. Shreyas Iyer demonstrated the well-known depth of batting talent in India. Ravindra Jadeja showed why he has been the most important member of this Test side since his comeback as an allrounder.
Most importantly, the first day reiterated that you need deep attacks to compete away from home. There’s probably no bigger challenge for a Test team today than to travel to India and lose the toss. The last time India lost a home Test after winning the toss was nine years ago. Of 18 such matches since that defeat to England, two have been drawn because of weather and only one of the 16 wins has been by a margin of under 100 runs.
Jamieson and Southee made the most of the situation after being asked to bowl on a slow and low Kanpur pitch. Jamieson in particular displayed his immaculate understanding of Test cricket and the skill to back it up. He was quick to find the fullest length to bring the batters forward without letting them drive. Remember that is not how he operates in helpful conditions where he comes behind Southee and Trent Boult and bowls dry lengths before going for the fuller ball that draws the edge.
Jamieson bowled enough good balls to benefit from the old adage “it takes one ball to get them out”. It really was that in the case of Shubman Gill and Ajinkya Rahane. Gill curtailed his movement across from England to stay beside the line of the ball and score freely, which he did, but he fell to perhaps the first ball that reversed, and it did reverse remarkably early. On another day, the first ball that misbehaves like this is not on target, and you get the chance to tighten your game. On this day, Gill’s stumps went for a walk.
The same happened with Rahane, who everybody knows doesn’t have the runs: an average of 25 in his last 25 Tests. You can’t discard the cold evidence, but he has batted better than the numbers suggest.
A big indicator of where Rahane’s game is at is how eager he is to hit an early boundary. He is a flashy starter: in the three years leading to the Australia tour no India batter had scored more streaky boundaries in the first 30 balls of an innings than Rahane even though he had quite a low strike rate over that period. Since Australia, Rahane has been more assured before he really struggled in the second half of the England tour. In Kanpur, he looked calm, middled most of the balls he played, had a control percentage close to 90, but got out to one that stayed low from the exact length that he had cut away for four previously.
On Rahane’s day this bottom edge goes for four. It’s happened before. It was Jamieson’s day.
Southee doesn’t have the disconcerting pace or bounce but he does have a lovely outswinger. Early in the piece he bowled scrambled-seam deliveries to look for the lbw, and then when it began to reverse he went wide on the crease, flipped the shiny side outside, made Pujara play the angle and then took the edge with away swing.
At the other end, though, New Zealand would have seen worrying signs with balls keeping low and the odd one turning from the straight. And yet this was only the second time since 2001 that spinners bowled 50 overs in a day in India without a wicket. It raised the same old question that is asked of visiting sides: should you just pick your best bowler instead of two spinners?
New Zealand’s selection shouldn’t be faulted in hindsight. Had they got to bat first their spinners would have got more helpful conditions. And even if they had gone with just the one, that one would have been Ajaz Patel, who had an ordinary day, struggling to put together a string of good balls, going for 78 in 21 overs, that too after he bowled his last few overs well outside leg to Iyer.
Iyer was never meant to play in this series. A closer contender to the first XI was sent to South Africa on the A tour, and he was just a back-up. That he could slot in to cover for KL Rahul’s injury and score an efficient unbeaten 75 on debut from a tricky situation shows you how good India’s reserves are. In doing so he preyed on the lack of depth in New Zealand’s attack.
The moment they were forced to bowl two spinners in tandem, thanks to a niggle to Southee, Iyer pounced. Jadeja once again underlined Hanuma Vihari’s misfortune: India have a specialist bowler good enough to bat at No. 6.
Batting will not ease out the way it did for Iyer and Jadeja – who were no doubt good enough to capitalise on it – because India have just the bowling attack for these conditions. It will take a huge effort from New Zealand and the weather to not add to the list of comfortable wins for India when they win the toss at home. As for #newera, give them some time before making judgements. They are not here to make statements for the sake of making statements.