It is said that test cricket is the greatest form of the game – both for players and the spectators. The 1st test between India and New Zealand at Eden Park, Auckland from February 6-9, 2014 proved to be just that. Throughout the match, won ultimately by the hosts, the Kiwis dominated the proceedings. Yet, the Indians also made the stirring comeback that they are known to do every once in a while, making this encounter one worth remembering for ages.
In the first couple of days it was New Zealand that basically ruled the roost. Batting first, after being put in by MS Dhoni, the hosts ran up a huge score of 503 thanks to a brilliant 113 from Kane Williamson and a career defining 224 from the skipper Brendon McCullum. Corey Anderson also weighed in with a swashbuckling 77 and there were some late order runs from Ish Sodhi and Tim Southee. On the bowling front, Ishant Sharma stood out for India with 6 wickets, easily one of his better bowling displays in recent memory.
Replying to the mammoth score Indian batsmen, who have so far been out of form with the exception of Kohli, could not get going and were bundled out for a paltry 202 with Rohit Sharma’s 72 the only innings of note. Neil Wagner was the destroyer-in-chief with 4 wickets and was well backed up by the opening bowlers – Southee and Boult – who picked 3 wickets each. This gave the Kiwis a huge 301 lead but they understandably did not enforce the follow on so that they could keep their fast bowlers fresh for a second dig. Considering, how the match went down to the wire this proved to be a critical and well thought-out decision in the end.
In the second innings of New Zealand the Indian bowlers, who had been woeful so far in the match, performed to their collective best and shot out New Zealand for a miniscule 105. Shami and Ishant were the main wreckers with 3 wickets apiece. However, India faced a daunting target of 407 runs, which would have been their highest successful chase had they been successful.
This time the Indian riposte was led by Dhawan who scored his first century of the tour. Kohli also tried hard with a 67 but there was not much support from the other batsmen. Wagner was once again the main wicket taker with 4 scalps and yet again Boult and Southee picked up 3 wickets apiece.
In all, India could be satisfied with the way it was able to come back into the match despite being down and out for most part. The team management will also be happy with the fact that the three seamers, especially Ishant who has been pilloried for his below par performances in the 2 ODIs on this tour, came back the way that they did. In fact, Zaheer Khan stated that this was the best bowling performance of Indian quick bowlers as a unit in recent memory. However, batting would be a major worry and Dhoni also expressed concerns at the apparent inability of the team to seize the critical moment. However, given the levels of experience in the team the skipper needs to give the young guns at least 2 years before they can become consistent performers in conditions suited to quick bowling.
From New Zealand’s point of view, the form of Kane Williamson is a major plus. The young batsman regarded by many as a future leader (he has in fact led the Kiwis during their previous tour to the Caribbean Islands) is slowly beginning to find his feet in international cricket yet again and that is surely heartening for all concerned. One of the best decisions taken by McCullum in his captaincy tenure is to relieve himself of keeping duties and this has prolonged his career and also opened up his batting. The results are, in fact, there for all to see. In fact, Dhoni can take a cue from this and give up his gloves. It will enable him to prolong his career and also infuse some much needed experience into the Indian middle order. It could also help his captaincy to a certain extent.
From the bowling perspective, the opening seamers have performed really well for the Kiwis and have set the tone with their high quality bowling. Before the tour it had been estimated by many, including yours truly, that Indians may have it easy against Kiwis having handled Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in the previous series but so far Southee and Boult have tormented them no less.
Neil Wagner has, however, proven to be the surprise package for the Kiwis. He is easily the quickest among the three and is used as a shock as well as a stock bowler. He is also regarded as the finest purveyor of reverse swing in the team but above everything else, he is a highly dogged individual who is never afraid of a scrap. In the first test he brought all these qualities to the fore.
While in the first innings he got Vijay, who had been going well, and also polished off the lower order including Dhoni, in the second innings he accounted for the crucial wickets of Kohli and Dhawan, the highest scorers for India. He also got Dhoni in the second innings when the Indian captain was on the verge of winning the game for India and picked up Zaheer, thus underlining his value for his adopted national team. It was strange that he was overlooked for the Man of the Match honors. With him in full flow, the Kiwis now have a seam attack that compares favorably to any of its kind in the cricketing world. However, New Zealand would be seriously concerned with the lack of runs from the opening pair, who have not performed well in the first match. One feels that they may look to launch a comeback in the second test and that could only be an ominous sign for Dhoni and Co.