Friday, March 27, 2009

Notes on the New Zealand series

India's New Zealand tour has gone to plan, so far, for the visitors. If you ignore the T20 result, which is mostly a lottery in these early days of that form of cricket, India have done better than could've been reasonably expected. A comfortable win in the ODI series, and a comprehensive win in the first Test, have demonstrated that this Indian team is easily better at touring than its predecessors over the years.

One factor that has certainly helped is that the pitches haven't been 'deadly' like on the previous tour. But they certainly haven't been "flat tracks" as some reporters have claimed. Flat tracks are what you get in India (or these days, the West Indies), which are just rolled mud. The ball doesn't deviate off the pitch, and doesn't rise above knee height, on those pitches. The pitches this season in New Zealand have provided a fair amount of assistance to the seam bowlers - some movement off the pitch, and certainly some bounce, especially with the new ball. That has helped India's seamers make early inroads into the inexperienced NZ top order. But as soon as the ball loses its hardness (not so much its shine), that assistance disappears and the pitches become quite benign. I suspect that the pitches are quite hard, resulting in the ball getting softened up quickly.

Swing hasn't been much of a factor so far -- not surprising considering that neither team possesses a genuine swing bowler. Zaheer Khan comes closest to that description, but he's primarily a seam bowler who can exploit reverse swing rather than the conventional kind. But there's no Jimmy Anderson or Irfan Pathan in these sides. Certainly we haven't seen any significant swing beyond the first few overs. I wonder if this is partly because of the way teams "take care of" the ball these days, hoping for reverse swing later. They keep the shine on one side of the ball, and the other side becomes rougher and heavier. Until reverse swing kicks in, this makes it hard to get conventional swing. In more innocent times, teams would work hard to keep the shine on both sides of the ball, and that'd keep the swing going for 15-20 overs at least. These days it doesn't seem to last 10 overs. In any case, the genuine swing bowler seems to be a disappearing species.

Coming to spin bowling, it's been a disappointment so far -- and I say that despite Harbhajan's performance in the second innings of the first Test. The pitches have actually been pretty responsive to the spinners. But the quality of spin bowling overall has deteriorated so much that a Vettori is considered the best left-arm spinner in the world these days, and a Harbhajan probably the second-best offie! Vettori is a smart cricketer all right. He does his best with his control over line and length, and clever changes of pace and angle of delivery. But the classic spinner's armoury of flight and spin is missing! Harbhajan too has lost hit bite these days. On hard, bouncy pitches like these he ought to have been deadly. He does generate a nice swerve in the air, but the zip off the pitch is missing, the big turners aren't in evidence, and I've hardly seen a flighted ball! These days the radar gun reveals changes in pace all right, and the commentators have been demanding the slower ball from Harbhajan, in the 80-85 kmph range. But it's not just the slow pace! Where's the flight? The ball really needs to come down from above the batman's eye level. It's just basic, that sort of trajectory makes it harder for the batsman to judge the length, leaving him unsure whether to move forward or back. And then you need to put plenty of rpms on the ball make it dip, making it even harder to negotiate. Neither Vettori nor Harbhajan has made this happen. Today's spinners grip the ball so deep in their hands that there's no way they can impart a lot of spin. The limited amount of spin they do get is due to the wrist movement rather than the traditional snap of the fingers. As I write this, I'm watching Harbhajan get clobbered by the NZ batsmen in the second Test, which just drives home the point.

The batting, on the other hand, has thrived, prospered, flowered... Sachin Tendulkar's innings in the first Test was superbly constructed, and he just doesn't play an ugly shot, ever (well, almost never). His natural movements are so graceful that even his defensive strokes are bliss. And Jesse Ryder is a wonderfully talented young batsman (we already knew that about Ross Taylor). Just another in a long line of left-handers to torment the Indian bowling over the years! Remember Shiv Chanderpaul, Matt Hayden, Andy Flower, even Jimmy Adams? Or going further back, Clive Lloyd, Allan Border... The list goes on and on. India seems to have a penchant for letting lefties have monster series against them. Ryder now has a fifty, a century and a double-ton in three innings of this Test series, not to mention his big scoring in the ODIs before. And he's such a pleasing batsman to watch, with the fluidity and non-violence of his strokeplay, which still scoring at a good rate. He's also displayed a maturity that one wouldn't have expected of him, given his chequered personal history. Coming in with his team in dire straits (twice, now), he's played less aggressively than his natural game, let other batsmen (Vettori and Taylor) dominate the scoring, and gone serenely.

Amazing how Dhoni's presence or absence seems to affect the fortunes of the Indian team, though! He skips the series in Lanka and we're promptly thrashed (credit to Mendis too, of course). He skips this second Test, and New Zealand promptly post a huge first innings total and put India under pressure. He's a talisman, although it's hard for the rational person to say something like that! Hard to find any causality other than the vague effects on morale and mindset of the players.

We're less than half-way through with this Test series, and although it has not necessarily been gripping cricket so far, it now promises to be a good contest. The Indian batting needs to be tested under pressure, and although I'm confident they'll prevail in the end, it'll be interesting if they are forced to follow on in this second Test.

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