Batting remains a worry for India
With a slogged six over midwicket on a murky evening in Bangalore, MS Dhoni sealed a 2-0 Test series victory over New Zealand. For a team in transition, in their first series without two of their greatest middle-order batsmen, and after one of their worst-ever Test performances last season, you'd think it was a satisfactory result. You can't do better than 2-0 in a two-Test contest, but the batting remains a worry after another tight home win for India.
India's formidable home record - just one series loss in the past decade, and that to the mighty Australians at their peak - has been built upon a powerful batting line-up rather than a world-class bowling attack. However, the struggle to match a lightweight New Zealand batting, which has been dismissed below 200 ten times in the last two years, on a fairly easy-paced track at the Chinnaswamy Stadium doesn't bode well.
Gautam Gambhir seemed to have put a fallow spell behind him when he began India's chase of 261 with a confident bunch of boundaries. Unlike the first innings, there were no wobbles against the new ball, and the steer to third man which has cost him his wicket so often in recent Tests seemed to have been wisely mothballed. It re-appeared though in the 18th over, and again led to his downfall as he tamely steered Trent Boult to first slip. It extended a worrying trend of Gambhir being caught either by the wicketkeeper or in the slip cordon.
MS Dhoni wasn't too concerned by Gambhir's struggles, sticking to an oft-repeated mantra about out-of-form batsmen. "I think Gautam is batting really well in the nets and it's just a matter of time that he does the same in matches too," Dhoni said after the match. "Today also he was batting really well. He started off really well. So we're hoping he would come good in the coming games."
The only specialist middle-order batsman to emerge with his reputation enhanced from the Bangalore Test was Man of the Match Virat Kohli. Cheteshwar Pujara looked composed in the early part of his second innings in a high-pressure situation but was beaten outside off too many times after lunch by the gentle offspin of Jeetan Patel. The last remaining member of India's famed middle-order quartet, Sachin Tendulkar, also didn't have a series to remember, getting bowled in all three innings. His unparalleled career is winding down, and the team management need to get a clear idea of his future plans, especially whether he intends to be a part of the tour of South Africa next year. "The good thing is that whenever people talk about Tendulkar's form, he comes up with a brilliant performance and I'm waiting for that," Dhoni said. "I don't really get worried about that."
The biggest concern remains the troublesome No. 6 spot, with Suresh Raina undoing the goodwill earned by his crucial first-innings half-century with a wild swipe that his critics will remind him of for a long time. With India having lost both set batsmen, Tendulkar and Pujara, in the space of six runs, the match was in the balance, and a cool head was required. Instead, after Patel tied him down with some tidy bowling, Raina went charging down the track for a high-risk heave. He missed, and was bowled for a duck, boosting New Zealand's chances of a dream victory.
The first-innings heroics and the subsequent failure in the second was a microcosm of Raina's Test career - highs quickly followed by confidence-sapping lows. He began with a debut century against Sri Lanka, and was a vital part of a successful big chase in his second. When it was time to secure his place, he bafflingly failed against a workmanlike New Zealand attack in the 2010 home series and was soon dropped. Half-centuries in each of the three Tests in the tricky batting conditions of the Caribbean again seemed to bring him close to a permanent spot last year, before England's high-quality bowling worked him out, with a pair at The Oval leading to his exclusion. This series was his third coming, and that too could be shortlived, given the number of contenders for the berth, and the new selectors will certainly take a dim view of his Bangalore brain-fade.
Dhoni defended Raina, highlighting his Test inexperience and his naturally adventurous brand of batting. "There are two ways of fighting pressure - one is to take the fight on and look for big shots," Dhoni said. "In the first innings, he went out there and played his shots. Then he could've nicked one and then the same question would have been asked. Otherwise, people say it was brilliant batting, it was counter attack and all. I still remember me playing against England a long time back in Wankhede, I played a similar kind of shot. You learn from your experience."
Dhoni pointed out another reason to persist with Raina. "It's important to have a left-hander at six or seven. This series [Daniel] Vettori wasn't playing but if a left-hander is there, the mix becomes ideal. Gambhir is at the top of the tree and then you have a fair number of right-handers. Then it's useful if you have a left-hander at six if the wicket is turning. But that doesn't guarantee anyone a place in the Test side."
The in-form Kohli and the ice-cool Dhoni ensured New Zealand didn't pull off an upset victory, but this was the easiest of the assignments this home season and the batting hasn't yet convinced that it is ready for the English and Australian challenge.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo