New Zealand's grit holds them in good stead
They were of varying length and in different guises but most of the questions put to Daniel Vettori after the Hyderabad Test was drawn were born from a common sentiment: one of surprise at how a team ranked No. 8, having been humiliated in one-day internationals by Bangladesh, had managed to hold the No. 1 Test side to a 0-0 scoreline after two matches. They sought to determine whether Vettori was relieved at the results, whether New Zealand felt a sense of achievement, and whether they would spend the hour-long bus ride back to their hotel feeling satisfied and contented. The more pertinent question, though, is: how has this come to pass?
The bulk of the blame from the Indian camp, and the captain MS Dhoni is the primary finger-pointer, has been slathered on the unresponsive tracks prepared at Motera and in Hyderabad. A fair share of the criticism is justified since the pitches at both venues stayed unreasonably flat on all five days and made bowling as appealing as going to the dentist. A weaker reason is the injury to India's primary wicket-taker Zaheer Khan on the fourth day of the second Test. He would have been dangerous, but not that dangerous.
To not credit this New Zealand team as a whole for their collective tenacity, and the individuals comprising it for their strength in overcoming unique challenges, however, would be to ignore the fundamental reasons for their success across time and formats: their whole has always been greater than the sum of the parts.
A statistic bandied about in the lead-up to the tour was that the entire New Zealand squad had fewer Test runs than Sachin Tendulkar. At present, seven New Zealand batsmen have more runs in the series than him. And they have been made in adversity.
In Ahmedabad, New Zealand were in strife during their response to India's strong first-innings total when Jesse Ryder and Kane Williamson began their partnership. Ryder was returning to Test cricket after an injury layoff, Williamson was beginning his Test career. Failure at that juncture would have been a disappointment but it would also have been understood and forgiven. In Hyderabad, the heroes were a batsman who had just made a pair, another who had been dropped for the first Test, and a third who was new to the challenges of being a Test opener.
Ryder responded by batting with a calmness that had traces of Inzamam-ul-Haq to it. He is unflustered at the crease, and he has all the shots. And speed. Tim McIntosh proved he possessed the temperament to handle a struggle and play aggressively once on the other side of it. Martin Guptill spoke of the preparation he had put in to cope with Indian spin, and though his test wasn't of the highest standard, his efforts showed. Brendon McCullum used his attacking skills in his new role to wipe out New Zealand's deficit quicker than most would have expected, and as a result they were under extreme pressure for a shorter duration. And Williamson, whose genial celebration of his maiden century won hearts in this age of aggression, exhibited his forcefulness by striking Sreesanth for three fours in the first over of the final day. Those boundaries effectively signalled the end of India's victory aspirations, even before Zaheer trudged off the field.
"The top order came here under pressure from what had happened in Bangladesh but they've responded exceptionally well," Vettori said. "Particularly the two openers in this game, Brendon in his second Test match as an opener and Tim McIntosh coming off a pair, were outstanding and really set up the platform in both innings to allow us to score some pretty good totals. So the likes of Williamson and Ryder in the first Test, and McIntosh and McCullum in this one, have really allowed us to be at our best."
The batting apart, New Zealand were also expected to struggle to take 20 wickets. They managed it in Ahmedabad, and they've also bowled with rigorous discipline that disrupted the pace at which India are accustomed to scoring at home. Vettori didn't grumble about the pitches either, despite bowling a total of 142.3 overs, the most in the series. He's toiled manfully, like a captain should, bowling until his arm is sore and has 11 wickets, again the most in the series, to show for his efforts. He granted himself the luxury of a rest when India had a jolly hit during the final session of play in Hyderabad, but has otherwise been the crux of New Zealand's campaign.
New Zealand's pace attack - led by Chris Martin and Tim Southee - has not attempted to overachieve on these deadest of pitches. They've bowled to well-set fields designed to save the single and worn India's batsmen down. An inspired spell from Martin aside, during which India crumbled to 15 for 5 at Motera, they were unlikely to cut through the most-celebrated batting line-up in the world. Instead, they relied on a relentless accuracy and it has brought them steady results. The key to New Zealand's bowling success, however, has been their fielding and that is one discipline no one expected them to struggle in. The flying Kiwis have taken sharp catches at slip and prevented countless boundaries with precise anticipation, agile movement and a well-timed dive in the in-field. McCullum provides the energy and is at the heart of the fielding effort. On his watch, few shots get past cover.
The underpinning factor that has made all this achievable, however, has been their mindset and the utter professionalism with which they prepare and play. They haven't complained about pitches and the lack of UDRS, or made too much about adjusting to Indian conditions. They've played the series in wonderful spirit - heartily applauding Harbhajan's game-changing innings and not responding to Sreesanth's prickly behaviour. Their approach has been one of understated grit.
New Zealand have now held India to draws in their last four Tests. In two of them, India had to do the surviving. Vettori's team will still be expected to lose in Nagpur, though. If they don't, it will be a surprise again. That is the lot of this hard-working team that has punched above its weight.