A series lost from winning positions
India go back from New Zealand with a 40-run loss in Auckland and a disappointing draw in Wellington. While MS Dhoni spoke at length about the improvements he had seen in his side - and there were plenty of positives - with a bit more application and luck India could have taken the series 2-0.
Being optimistic is the way to go, but you were also left with the feeling that the management's expectations from the young side might not have been sky high. However, considering the positions they built for themselves, India should feel disappointed for not winning at all, especially when they won the toss each time on pitches that lost bite after the first couple of sessions.
India needed 185 to win with eight wickets remaining in Auckland. Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli had stunned New Zealand with an aggressive century partnership. Then Kohli went after Neil Wagner, lost his wicket and India eventually fell short by not too many. In Wellington, Kohli dropped Brendon McCullum on 9, and India could do nothing as the New Zealand captain converted a 246-run deficit into a 434-run lead.
The world can debate whether Dhoni should have had one or many slips, or placed Kohli five inches back at short mid-on, where he put McCullum down. McCullum himself had just one slip for large parts of India's second innings, and had no intention of pushing for a win given his belated declaration, but that will not matter to a world that concluded long ago that Dhoni is defensive and McCullum is aggressive.
In time, when the rush for finding causes subsides, history will record that McCullum played one of the great innings in Test cricket, with worthy support acts from BJ Watling and Jimmy Neesham. However, the fact remains, as Dhoni admitted, that India were unable to close out the match. More so in Wellington, and to a lesser extent in Auckland.
Through the series, Dhoni spoke about the need for his batsmen to capitalise when they were in. Barring the first-innings meltdown in Auckland, India posted 421, 438 and 166 for 3. There has never been any doubt about the potential of this top six, and in South Africa that potential had been evident in difficult conditions. In New Zealand, they showed that the potential is more likely to be fulfilled than wasted.
Dhawan's successive knocks of 98 and 115 have to be India's biggest individual gains from this series. He has shown the willingness and the ability to respect the conditions and the bowlers. Among the top six, only Rohit Sharma is without a big innings on either of these tours, although he did help Kohli bat time for the draw in Wellington. Before South Africa, India would have gladly taken five out of six.
It was refreshing to see Dhoni make crucial contributions with the bat in both Tests. He played on for 39 after rattling New Zealand in Auckland, but the 68 in Wellington once again showed how much he can hurt sides in Tests. Ajinkya Rahane's maiden hundred was almost flawless but it was Dhoni's assault on Wagner that turned the momentum India's way.
India's fast bowlers are not usually recipients of praise, but how quickly they came back from the poor display in the first innings in Auckland. Their intensity was a sight to watch as they rolled New Zealand for 105 in the second innings.
They did the job for Dhoni on a helpful day-one surface in Wellington too, but their second innings effort was gargantuan. It is perhaps possible to forget in this modern age that bowlers are still humans. For a 35-year old to have to deliver 51 overs in one innings must border on physical and mental torture. And for them to be full of purpose, and for him to zoom in with the third new ball as if he was starting a fresh innings was incredible. After the highs and lows of South Africa, and the surprising ineptness of the first innings at Eden Park, Zaheer Khan told us he is not just an on-field bowling coach yet.
For once, Ishant Sharma bowled like a man who has played 50-plus Tests, barring large parts of the Auckland first innings. In time Mohammed Shami will hopefully realise it pays to use some discretion while going flat out. And India already know they cannot keep dropping top opposition batsmen. Kane Williamson made them pay in Auckland, and McCullum in Wellington.
On the whole, it was the first innings with ball and bat in Auckland that cost India the series. They had more than their share of chances and sooner rather than later they are bound to take their share of the spoils as well. They have too much collective and individual promise not to. But New Zealand 2014 is the one that got away.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo