SORE INDIAN LOSERS, UNDERRATED KIWI WINNERS

A week after India’s loss to New Zealand in the WTC final, it has been amusing to witness the sheer small-mindedness from so many quarters. Many ex-cricketers, perhaps smarting from the imagined ignominy of getting their prediction of an easy Indian win wrong, are attributing this to luck and the conditions that favoured New Zealand. Some are convinced India’s inferior preparation compared to New Zealand’s is the only reason for their failure.

Here is a cross-section of some reactions with a counter for each. Fake news built on unjustified outrage requires a proper pushback.

“India batted poorly on the last day.”

It might help to first understand that in these conditions, with the Dukes ball, New Zealand had the sort of bowling attack that even at 75–80% of its efficiency would trouble any batting order in the world. Complemented by its batsmen led by Williamson (despite a middling record in England before this), who knew how to bat in these conditions, this Kiwi team would likely win 9 out of 10 matches here, if rain did not play a part. India did extremely well to get away with just a 32-run first innings deficit and to fashion a decent start (51–1) in the second innings, before losing a wicket fifteen minutes before close on the penultimate day. When, instead of a nightwatchman, Kohli walked out to bat, it actually gave away how much this team was willing to walk his “positive intent” talk. They were clearly going for a win, instead of a shared trophy, for which they needed to give New Zealand about 160 to win in something like 45 overs — a calibrated declaration was on the cards if India survived the first hour, with the sun out.

The positivity from Kohli in the morning conditions as the ball swerved and talked was refreshing; he was walking the tightrope between recklessness and positive intent very well initially, leaving the ball outside his off stump without being in two minds but also looking for runs. At 71–2, with a lead of 39, the highlights would only show Kohli awkwardly poking at a delivery from Jamieson to the keeper without elaborating how brilliantly he was set up by the bowler. Ten balls later, Pujara defeated by a seemingly innocuous straight ball would seem infuriating for someone who didn’t account for how he was deceived by a supposed off-cutter that didn’t come in. The Kiwis out-thought these two stellar batsmen during this big moment for which they deserve every accolade, which doesn’t quite manifest if it is attributed to poor cricket by the two batsmen.

Rishabh Pant on the final day. AFP.

Later, Pant’s attacking play was absolutely the right step with India barely 80 ahead — that he perished in that mode seemed to activate amnesia regarding the manner in which he got those 41 runs in the first place that actually made some kind of a match of this. India were going for runs because they still wanted to attempt a win, for which they needed to put more runs between themselves and the Kiwis. Going for a draw would have led to an even worse ending for India in these conditions — which were very unlike those in Sydney earlier this year. Yes, thirty more runs and thirty less minutes for New Zealand to get those runs in, would have made more of a match of this (though the Kiwis would probably still have won), and the Kiwis deserve credit for preventing India from accomplishing that. Blaming the Indians for being out-performed by a better side in these conditions is in bad taste.

The match this echoed to some extent was this Adelaide Test match in 2014, when Australia declared on a flat pitch setting India 364 to make in the fourth innings. Kohli’s searing innings that eventually yielded 141 in 175 balls had seen India at 242–2 at one stage. Till the time he was at the crease (till 304–6), India kept on pushing for a win even though there wasn’t much batting to come at the other end. India eventually fell short by 48 runs but copped justifiable criticism for not even attempting a draw even when that was within grasp. Here, the criticism is much less justified as the conditions were much more difficult to bat in,

Overall, India played very well in this match, and showed why they have been world #1 for much of the last five years. To run the Kiwis so close till the last day without enough match practice in conditions where New Zealand has had a very clear advantage over India was a stellar effort.

Credit: AFP

“India did not choose the right team for this match.”

This is squarely about India choosing two spinners for this match. It is useful here to remember that a) the weather forecast before the match began only accounted for the first day to be completely washed out, not the fourth day as well. That would have given India theoretically two days on a slightly roughed up pitch instead of just the last day as it turned out. b) This was the sort of pitch that necessitated risk-taking to maximise the chance of scoring runs (it is not at all a coincidence that the Kiwi latter order got runs on this) so Jadeja as a batsman was probably a better bet than Vihari in any case in these conditions. c) Jadeja eventually did not seem in good match form — he was tentative while batting and bowling, which was probably not predictable and therefore unfortunate. But the idea for India to play to its strength, and play two all-time great spinners against a team not used to playing spin of this calibre in a big match, was the right one.

There has been a lot of talk about how Mohammed Siraj would have made a big difference to this match, but that does not account for his lack of experience in these conditions. Even experienced and talented bowlers take time to find the right length in these conditions; it would have been unfair to throw him in the deep end and then judge him for it, the way Bumrah has been judged in this match. The bowler India truly missed, and blundered by not including in their ranks, was Bhuvneshwar Kumar — this match, in these conditions, should have been the high point of his career. Even if he played just this one match, and none in the England tour, it would have been perfectly fine. This is the trick India actually missed.

“Pujara lacks intent and should be replaced.”

This dangerous worldview has re-emerged again, because of the 54 balls Pujara took to score 8 runs in the first innings.

Cheteshwar Pujara. AFP.

This is a fundamentally ignorant way of looking at Test cricket where even Kane Williamson (who was perhaps the rightful Man of the Match on a pitch difficult to bat on — he prevented defeat while Jamieson enabled victory) scored 7 runs in 68 balls in the first session on the penultimate day in conditions very similar to what Pujara faced. Williamson blunted the Indian bowling much like Pujara has done for India during much of his career, giving the other batsmen better circumstances to score runs in. But now with there being talk yet again about “intent” and of ousting Pujara from the №3 spot so that Kohli can bat there, with a more aggressive intent from the №4 batsman, one wonders how Rahul Dravid, India’s greatest Test batsman bar none till date, would have fared in this team.

“New Zealand played far fewer matches than India or Australia and did not deserve to be in the final.”

This is actually an argument for how much more difficult it was for New Zealand. Any team improves in conditions alien to what it is used to when it gets enough exposure. For years, New Zealand has been the team that gets invited the least in international cricket. In the last four-and-a-half years, for example, NZ has had just four away tours; just 10 Tests in 4 away series. Meanwhile, in the same period (from Jan 1, 2017 till now), India has played 23 away Tests in 7 away series (excluding the WTC final), England 26 in 8 and Australia 17 in 5. And it’s not just the Big 3; Sri Lanka has played 26 Tests in 12 away series in that same period, Pakistan 19 in 9, West Indies 21 in 10, South Africa 16 in 7, Bangladesh 16 in 9. New Zealand — the world’s #1 Test team as per the ICC, just 10 Tests in 4 away series!

Credit: Blackcaps.

And even after being crowned world champion, there is just one away series confirmed for them in 2021 — a two-Test series in India (they are very rarely given more than two Tests per series). In fact, shockingly, despite being the Test champions and additionally the number one ranked Test team in the world, in the next cycle of the WTC, England, India and Australia play the maximum Tests (21, 19 and 18 respectively) followed by South Africa (15) and Pakistan (14). New Zealand play 13 Tests, the same as West Indies and Sri Lanka, ranked seventh and eighth in the Test rankings!

Despite such limited opportunities to improve their craft through exposure, it is a near-miracle that they have had the kind of results they’ve had during this period. They’ve had the biggest success in swinging conditions — at home and in England — winning almost every match, not losing even one. On turning pitches, they’ve won one series and drawn another — against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Their only blip in this period is in Australian conditions where their injury-hit team unperformed and lost convincingly. But other teams have had such moments as well — India against the Kiwis in New Zealand — their worst series defeat in many years. Australia lost to India in their own backyard, with the latter’s injury-hit team. After accounting for these facts, it actually suggests poor cognitive skills to dismiss New Zealand’s claim to both the world #1 ranking and the WTC title.

“The New Zealand team does not get tours because it is not a ‘box office’ team.”

Jamieson, Southee, Boult and Wagner. Getty images.
Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson after the WTC final was won. Getty Images.

When a team has the finest swing bowling attack in current times if not in the history of the game, two of the finest modern-day batsmen who have strong claims to all-time greatness for different reasons (Williamson and Taylor), two of the most consistent batsmen in contemporary times providing the kind of substance that is the envy of many teams (Latham and Nicholls),all-rounders who have turned the game around with the ball (Jamieson) and bat (de Grandhomme) — both also entertaining, explosive batsmen, a lower order capable of quick and exciting runs including the man who has hit the highest sixes/ balls faced ratio in Test history (Southee) and arguably the most substantial wicketkeeping-batsman in Test history in terms of tough runs (Watling), then clearly mainstream media vacuity has had its say and fake news taken its toll.

And this is not merely a flash in the pan moment. The New Zealand team that played the WTC final was actually not their best team for the moment — on form and for the conditions. Watling was playing his last Test for a reason — Tom Blundell actually makes a better case as a batsman now. Matt Henry’s exclusion in these conditions, after winning the Man of the Match award in the Test just before that, was not justifiable on either form nor conditions. Wagner’s inclusion was also a celebration of an era where there is nostalgia associated with what Boult-Southee-Wagner achieved as a trio. But on pure form, the Kiwis perhaps missed a trick because given how cold Southee and Boult were on the opening morning of the WTC final, Henry’s lethality in those tailor-made conditions might have ensured India did not touch 150 in the first innings, and the match could have been ruthlessly won even earlier than the three-and-a-half days of playing time it took. Wagner’s infectious pugnacious spirit may not even have been required on the last day. With the emergence of Jamieson and Conway in this bunch, those days are only going to get better.

“Disciplined, organised, competent, underdog, lately ruthless but still New Zealand.”

Cricket needs a new sensibility. One that has the humility to recognise that its old ways of seeing are outdated. And an intellect to go with it that can process new information and come to more accurate conclusions. But the Age of data is also the time of social media — the two often seem to cancel out each other when it comes to coherence. To not recognise the value of champions like the current New Zealand team, to not savour its competitive professionalism through its humility (anyone who observed their conduct after their heartbreaking 2019 World Cup final will never forget that), to not celebrate the humanity that sport in its essence embodies, is to commit a mistake that history will laugh at current generations for.

Australian writer Malcolm Knox is not the only one reminding the world of the value of such champions but it is not enough. In India, too, there is an awareness in some rare quarters of this historic moment seen in a different light. It is not enough for New Zealand to be everybody’s second-favourite team when that’s just an affable aside. There needs to be a drive around the cricket-playing world to seek out this team, write about them, demand more matches with them, before it’s too late and this Golden Era passes by.

We could start by giving them credit for outplaying our number one teams, with skill, fire, character and a sportsman spirit that redefines our cricket memory in ways that hasn’t happened for what now feels like a lifetime.

More on the same subject:
A breakdown after each day’s play of the WTC final
Why the result of the WTC final was eminently imminent
A much better way to hold the World Test Championship