November 3, 2010

Expect the expected

New Zealand have rarely challenged India in India. This tour is unlikely to change that

Given the contrasting form shown by the two sides in the Test arena in recent times, Daniel Vettori could be forgiven for regarding this trip to India as a hardship tour. But no matter how tough things might get over the coming three weeks, he can console himself with the thought that he's unlikely to find himself ankle-deep in water, desperately trying to get play restarted.

That was Graham Dowling's fate in October 1969, as New Zealand came agonisingly close to winning a series on Indian soil. Having succumbed to the wiles of Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna in Bombay - they needed just 188, but fell 60 short - they shocked the hosts in Nagpur with Hedley Howarth, the steady Vettori of his day, returning match figures of 9 for 100.

In Hyderabad they were bowled out for 181 and 175, but with India's batsmen unnerved by grass on the pitch, New Zealand were poised to record a famous victory. "India were clearly outplayed, but rain, riots and rows with the umpires lent the game drama, without pleasure," says the Almanack report. The riot, prompted by a soldier assaulting a pitch invader, cost New Zealand half an hour, but it was the clouds that were the bigger enemy.

At 76 for 7, needing 268 for victory, India were down for the count when the heavens opened. The rain fell for just half an hour but attempts to get the game underway again were so tardy that Dowling felt compelled to join in. "Instead of the covers being removed, a few workers with rags, some of them women, were given the task of removing the water from the covers and although there were official denials later, it looked very much like a deliberate go-slow policy," says the Almanack. "For perhaps the first time in cricket history a Test captain [Dowling] was on the field in bare feet, helping to remove the water. The match was abandoned twenty minutes before time..."

In 55 years and eight tours of India, that's as close as New Zealand have come to giving their hosts a bloody nose. Most of these trips have had a common theme. New Zealand had someone, a Bert Sutcliffe or a John Reid, batting supremely well, only for the lack of depth in the ranks to be exploited by India's phalanx of spinners. The series in 1969 was an aberration, with Indian cricket at a particularly low ebb before the advent of Sunil Gavaskar changed everything.

Apart from Nagpur and the near-miss in Hyderabad - both are venues in this series, although the old stadia are no longer in use - New Zealand's lone high watermark in India came in 1988, when the combination of Richard Hadlee (10 for 88) and John Bracewell (6 for 51 in the second innings) sent India tumbling to defeat in Mumbai.

That was another eventful series. The first Test, in Bangalore, saw several New Zealanders succumb to food poisoning, and at one stage Jeremy Coney, who had retired 18 months earlier, was drafted in as a substitute fielder. Hadlee went past Ian Botham's 373 wickets on the first morning of the game, with Arun Lal edging one to the slips, but it was India who won with a measure of comfort there and also in Hyderabad, in the third Test.

The three tours since have offered little by way of drama and excitement. One win sufficed for India in both 1995 and '99, but it was New Zealand who went home happier seven years ago after Daryl Tuffey so nearly embarrassed India in Mohali. Then, as was the case last month, it was VVS Laxman who spared India serious blushes.

The first Test in Ahmedabad will be Vettori's 100th (for New Zealand), and that stat alone gives you a clue as to the challenge his team faces. India have three "centurions" - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Laxman - and at least two others (Harbhajan Singh has 87 caps and Virender Sehwag 81) who will one day be members of the elite club. Even Zaheer Khan has played 74 Tests in a career interrupted by injury and indifferent form.

Who does Vettori have lining up behind him? Only Chris Martin (56) and Brendon McCullum (52) have played more than 50 Tests. Martin is already 35 and not far from the knacker's yard, while McCullum seems to deal solely in crests and troughs. Ross Taylor, considered one of the senior players in the batting line-up, has just 25 Test caps to his name.

New Zealand don't have to play a Prasanna or a Bedi, but if the one-day struggles against Shakib Al Hasan and friends last month are any indicator, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan will be eyeing a bagful of wickets. While India's spin stocks are hardly in rude health, most of their concerns centre around the lack of consistent pace support for Zaheer. For both Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth, the series offers an opportunity to discover a semblance of form before they run into Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis.

Given how they have brushed aside most touring sides in recent seasons, it's hard to envisage anything other than an Indian victory. South Africa shared the spoils on their last two trips to India largely because in Dale Steyn they have the finest pace bowler on the planet. Unless Hamish Bennett or Tim Southee can cause similar devastation, expect the scripts to be much the same as those in 1955-56 and 65. Only, this time, with Sehwag batting, there won't be any draws.

Dowling's side so nearly prevailed by being obdurate with the bat and tenacious with the ball. We can expect both from Vettori, a special talent in a less-than-world-class team. But with the support cast either inconsistent or lacking in quality, MS Dhoni could head to South Africa, and the series that will define his captaincy, with 15 Test wins to his name.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo