India were outplayed for the first time in more than a year in Tests by New Zealand in the first of their two-match series in Wellington. Since their last reversal in Perth in December 2018, the Virat Kohli-led team had been on a dream run in the longest format with eight comprehensive wins in nine games. They had looked a complete and balanced outfit even away from home and, courtesy the fine run, had climbed atop the newly-minted ICC World Test Championship table, a position they still hold and will continue to do so even if they lose the second instalment of the series, having already amassed a huge 360 points already.
Captain Kohli has said that 'it's not a big deal' if one loses a single Test after a glorious run and he is probably right. However, what is a big deal is the systemic issue that India still have against good ol' swing bowling even after coming up in leaps and bounds as a Test team in the last few years.
Movement more than pace
For the purposes of this piece, quick bowling without movement and balls that do stuff in the air and off the pitch are being distinguished. It is a crucial distinction and the facts bear it out.
While India finally clinched a historic Test series win in Australia under Kohli after successfully negotiating the pacy stuff and looked comfortable in West Indies in fast pitches, their star-studded batting finally came a cropper in Wellington.
Missing both Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan might have been a factor in their early, but familiar, capitulation in the 1st innings, but they had enough world-class talent in their ranks to see out the crucial first session against the Kiwi pacers. But that movement of the fast delivery that has often been the bane of Indian batsmen who rely on their hand-eye coordination to drive their brilliant stroke-making and it was no different here.
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Even the great Kohli, who has worked so hard on his footwork on his way to becoming the best in the business, was found wanting.
It was an all-too-familiar story with Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson wreaking havoc and the token spinner Ajaz Patel not really required. Neither pacers are express and Indians have dealt with much faster bowlers when there isn't much swing and seam happening.
It was a similar tale of woes in the second innings as Trent Boult joined in the act with the veteran Southee again proving his class. Only Mayank Agarwal and Ajinkya Rahane in the first innings put up some resistance but it was never enough to win a Test. Patel again bowled just three overs.
Before their triumphant run, India were crushed 4-1 by the Englishmen in 2018. The nemesis was against the moving ball expertly used by the veteran James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Co. India, despite winning a Test here and there in England and a series in 2007, have struggled in the swing-friendly conditions in England. A similar situation exists in New Zealand where India last won a Test series in 2008-09.
For Kohli's numero uno Test side, mastering the swinging ball may be the final frontier in their quest to claiming their position as the best Test side in the world. The Christchurch Test will thus be an all-important hoop that they need to negotiate with dexterity to reach that coveted status.