For Indian cricketers, tours of New Zealand are the high school equivalent of being called to the Principal’s office. Many a career has been ended or seriously blemished owing to the rigours of travelling to Kiwi country. In addition to adjusting to the pace and bounce of pitches outside Asia, Indian batsmen need to face up to one big additional challenge when it comes to playing in New Zealand.
Being a smaller island nation and being further away from the Equator than Australia, cricket grounds in New Zealand are as cold and windy as international venues get. Because of the venomous swing that these natural conditions add to the artillery of fast bowlers, many an Indian batsman has been left looking foolish in New Zealand, bats miles away from making contact with the ball, their scores through the tour reading like epitaphs.
If one listens closely to the wind that blows strongly in New Zealand’s cricket stadiums, one can hear whispered woes of Indian batsmen of the past.
A case in point is VVS Laxman, who was so clueless on the 2002/03 tour of New Zealand that he was not included in the 2003 World Cup squad. Laxman had scores of 9, 20 and 10 on that unfortunate tour, being dropped midway for Dinesh Mongia, leaving the Hyderabad batsman to rue his entire life that for all his achievements, he would never play a World Cup match.
Another victim from that tour was Sanjay Bangar, whose Test career's tombstone was written in New Zealand, with scores of 1, 12, 1 and 7.
It was not always like this, however. India had conquered New Zealand on their very first tour of the country in 1968, winning a Test series 3-1. Erapalli Prasanna’s spin menace had terrorised the home team that year, while India’s batting backbone had been provided by young Ajit Wadekar, who was yet to be burdened with captaincy duties.
On the subsequent tour in 1975, India won the first Test, yet again inspired by a Prasanna-led spin trio. This would be the last such joy for travelling Indians to New Zealand – barring the unusual tour of 2008/09.
Since 1975, India have won a grand total of one Test in New Zealand. As for ODIs, India had to wait till 1994 for their first win in New Zealand. On the most recent tour in 2014, India surrendered the ODI series 0-4, the third time in history they failed to win a single ODI in a bilateral series in New Zealand. To save the most damning statistics for the last, India have never beaten New Zealand in a T20 match.
Smile wiped off New Zealand’s faces
The whole history of India’s travels to New Zealand may read like an excessively sordid affair, but it is generally agreed that the humiliation of the 2002/03 series ranks quite high among the blackest chapters. Therefore, when the next tour of New Zealand came around in 2009, one could not have been faulted for expecting a circumspect approach from the Indian batsmen.
It was reported that the bowlers were practising running in against the wind ever since landing in New Zealand, but as for the batsmen, one could only have imagined them to be quaking in their boots – their blood chilled by not only the cold wind but also by the weight of history.
The tour was to kick off with a 2-match T20I series on 25 February, followed by 5 ODIs and 3 Tests. India lost the toss and were sent in to bat first at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch, with Tim Southee handling the new ball. In stepped Virender Sehwag, with arms windmilling, and Gautam Gambhir, to start off India’s campaign in New Zealand.
Gambhir, moving around in his crease too much, got off the strike on the third ball of the over, courtesy of a bottom edge deflecting onto his pads. The campaign may have only been three balls old, but Gambir’s discomfort would have been a sickeningly familiar sight for the travelling Indian. Sehwag took a middle stump guard, wielded his bat in readiness to be unfurled, and crouched as Tim Southee ran steaming in at 140kmph.
Southee wavered in his line in an attempt to dig it in short, straying down the leg side. Sehwag pulled the ball from shoulder height, the ball travelled over backward square leg, kept travelling, and landed on the stands, sending match officials in a scurry to retrieve it. The Najafgarh Nawab had done it again – hitting his very first ball for a six.
He had done this before, but what made this even crazier was that this was his first match on New Zealand’s soil in six years. In the pre-match press conference, captain MS Dhoni had said he would have to give his batsmen the first 20 overs of the tour just to acclimatise. Clearly, Sehwag had different ideas.
In ran Southee to bowl the fifth ball of the over – he pitched it fuller this time, but on the same middle and leg stump line, refusing to give him room outside his off stump. Sehwag picked it up from his feet deftly, and the ball flew off his bat over the mid-wicket boundary. This six was even bigger. Sehwag had hit his first two balls in New Zealand for two consecutive sixes. And suddenly, everybody started to wonder if they had been given the wrong script.
Southee, thrown off his rhythm, yet again bowled on the same line to finish off his over. Yet again Sehwag picked the ball up from his legs and smashed a flat six over square leg. Sehwag had hit three consecutive sixes to start off his tour of New Zealand, India had scored 19 off the first over; Tim Southee, who had been smiling at the beginning of the over, looked distraught and absent-minded as he took his cap back from the umpire.