The first thing to be said about the final is that in New Zealand’s first innings, the Indian team turned in the best fielding performance in a Test that anyone can remember. The ground fielding was sharp and every catch was cleanly taken. It didn’t last. The second time New Zealand batted, Cheteshwar Pujara and Jasprit Bumrah dropped a couple to reaffirm the team’s authentic Indianness, but the fact that they managed to produce an innings-long passage of fielding perfection was impressive.
The second lesson of the match was that the pitch can’t be ‘taken out of the equation’. Asked about selecting two spinners for a Test being played on a pitch likely to aid swing in overcast conditions, the fielding coach Sridhar said that the chosen XI ‘…takes the pitch and conditions out of the equation. I think it is an XI which can play and perform on any given surface, in any given weather conditions.’ Virat Kohli echoed Sridhar’s position on the eve of the Test. This was heroic but deluded.
From the start (and therefore without the benefit of hindsight,) Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton were sceptical about the usefulness of two spinners. They were right. Jadeja took one tail-ender’s wicket and didn’t bowl much. Many of the overs he did bowl were in a lost cause in the second innings. He might be the best all-rounder in the world, but an extra seam bowler or another specialist batsman would have served the team’s cause better in these conditions. India doesn’t have a seam-bowling all-rounder, but it does have reserve specialist batsmen.
Every time India tours England, the absence of a seam-bowling all-rounder is ritually lamented. Given that Hardik Pandya is a long way from bowling fitness – if he were anywhere near fit he’d be an automatic selection-it’s puzzling that Shardul Thakur isn’t in the squad. He swings the ball and in the few Test opportunities that he has had, has shown that he is a determined lower-order batsman. He might bring some of Neil Wagner’s bustling pugnacity to India’s line-up. It was a reasonable call to play both Ashwin and Jadeja given India’s squad limitations, but elevating necessity into a selection philosophy by talking airily about ‘taking the pitch out of the equation’ gets in the way of doing a rational audit of squad selection.
Captain Kohli had a decent outing. He fought his way to a hard-won 40 in India’s first innings, and then handled his attack well through New Zealand’s first innings, despite defending a small total. He was, however, eclipsed by his counterpart. Kane Williamson’s field placement was uncanny; he stationed a square-leg and Rahane paddled the ball to him. He posted a fly-slip who barely had to move as Shami’s leg-side heave took the edge and deposited itself directly into his cupped palms. Williamson made a battling 49 in the first innings, out-Pujara-ing Pujara, and then made sure New Zealand got over the line with an unbeaten 50 in the second innings.
There is no special virtue in being quiet and undemonstrative, but Williamson’s manner (and his results) prove that there’s more than one way of showing up for the battle. Kohli’s competitiveness registers as a constant state of combative excitement. This works best when India is in the game or winning. When it isn’t, as was the case here on the final day, Kohli’s hyper-animation, his bid to gee up the crowd like an on-field conductor, feels curiously unmoored from the action in the middle; he begins to seem like a character who has wandered into the wrong play.
When Kohli first became Captain on tour in Australia, he seemed the right man for the job. Dhoni’s calm had calcified into passivity by then, and Kohli galvanized the team with his raging will to win. But the magnificent series win in Australia last winter under Rahane had virtually everyone in the team from Pujara to Pant, Rohit to Rahane, Siraj to Sundar, Gill to Thakur, stepping up to take responsibility. The commentators and journalists covering that series remarked on the esprit de corps that buoyed up Rahane’s men.
Kohli is too much the entitled monarch; on tour, the team might be better off under more republican management. The last couple of seasons have been a thin time for Kohli, batting-wise. Apart for Rohit Sharma, the team’s batting veterans – Pujara, Kohli and Rahane – have had modest returns recently. Perhaps it’s time for them to concentrate on their principal skill, batting, and leave leading the team to someone else.
Someone called Ravichandran Ashwin. Ashwin is arguably the greatest bowler India has ever produced, and yet, bizarrely, each time a tour begins, it’s not clear that he’s a certainty to make the team. If Ashwin were Captain, that would be one dumb thing less to fret about. Nor would we worry, then, about him being under-bowled. A minor mystery about the last day of the Southampton Test was Ashwin’s disappearance from the bowling attack after taking the only two wickets to fall. Ashwin won’t be Captain anytime soon (or ever) because Kohli is one half of the anointed duumvirate that dominates Indian cricket, the other half being Ravi Shastri, India’s long-in-the-tooth-man-about-town manager. But we can dream.
Luckily for Kohli, things are likely to get better. August, when the five-test series begins, will probably bring warmer weather and perhaps a pitch or two that might help the spinners more than the one at Southampton. Best of all, it’ll bring England.
Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in Delhi. His most recent book is ‘Homeless on Google Earth’ (Permanent Black, 2013).
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