At long last, many fans saw the best available Test team playing for India. Shikhar Dhawan had for too long caused a sort of void at the top, and this coupled with Virat Kohli’s obsession with Rohit Sharma at three, had meant that there was often little stability in the middle order. Ajinkya Rahane would rescue the batting order, but he couldn’t do it every match.
When the team read: KL Rahul, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara at 1, 2 and 3 on the first morning of this series, Kohli seemed to have finally got the balance right. According to the pitch, he went in with four bowlers, trusting his two prolific spinners (and rightly so, on the dusty Green Park pitch), which also meant that he slotted in Rohit at six ahead of Wriddhiman Saha and R. Ashwin – the two centurions from the Caribbean.
The occasion was right too – India’s 500th Test match, and their 130th outright Test victory. Their 88th at home, too, where they are rarely beaten over the length of a series. A few individual records were reached too.
Let’s take a look at how all of them performed in India’s 185-run victory over the Kiwis:
KL Rahul (32 and 38) – 6/10
India’s new first-choice Test opener threw away some very very promising starts in both innings. He batted at a high strike-rate both times, looked extremely fluent especially in the first innings, but got out to spinners against the run of play. He is a perfect foil to the solid and playing-for-time Murali Vijay at the top. His two starts mean that he is no more the guy who – if he crosses 16 in a Test innings – goes on to score a century. Another amazing stat: he has only one fifty and three hundreds in his nine Test matches so far. The way he has forced his way into the side after a superb Indian T20 league and ODI season is a testament to his natural ability and temperament.
Murali Vijay (65 and 76) – 8/10
Perhaps the best thing that has come out of Pujara’s renewed confidence (and therefore, his renewed scoring rate in tests) is Vijay’s assuredness at the crease. He is in no hurry, given that Rahul and Pujara have both been quicker. He keeps one end up, and reiterated how he has been India’s best opener since Virender Sehwag in the longest form of the game. He has only Test cricket to concentrate on, and he does a fine job of fine-tuning his skills in the offseason. This will be an important six months – and 12 more Tests – for him to seal his legacy.
Cheteshwar Pujara (62 and 78) – 8/10
A fine comeback for India’s rightful Number 3. After a superb stint back in domestic cricket – century and a double century in the Duleep Trophy semi- and final – Pujara has returned “out of his shell,” as Kohli had requested him to in the West Indies. He was scoring at 20-30 in the Caribbean, bogged down by perhaps the insecurity of being able to only excel in one form of the game, but his fluency at Kanpur made everyone sit up and notice. This is a true-blue Test batsman, conquering his own mental chinks, ready to have a revelation of a home season.
Virat Kohli (9 and 18) – 5/10
There has been a noticeable problem with Kohli, the batsman, in Test cricket. He may have been spot-on with his selections and strategy, his captaincy was fairly confident, but his batting followed a worrying trend: apart from the series Down Under a few years ago, Kohli scores a century every series, and then tapers off in the rest of the matches. In the West Indies, after the 200, he scored 60 runs in four innings, and another 27 in two here – 87 in six innings since his double century. This inconsistency has been an issue with the new Indian captain, say, unlike a Rahane or a Vijay, who always score those half-centuries even when not getting those big scores. With Kohli, it seems to be boom or bust – not a hallmark of a Test great, yet. He still has a very good record, and bats well everywhere; it’s just that he needs to not let the burden of leading a team affect his batting. All he has to do is look at contemporaries like Kane Williamson or Steve Smith.
Ajinkya Rahane (18 and 40) – 6/10
Not a great match by his lofty standards – he has been India’s best Test batsman in the last year or so – but Rahane is still good enough, even when not at his best, to form a few important partnerships in the middle order. His second innings effort score helped India get over Kohli’s laborious innings, and one can only imagine that he is getting more comfortable at home as India move on to the next match.
Rohit Sharma (35 and 68) – 7/10
The way he threw away his wicket in the first innings, trying to loft Mitchell Santner over mid-on after doing all the hard work for 66 balls, seemed to have been career-defining and series-defining again, after India lost wickets in an hurry, almost scoring less than 300 eventually. Fortunately for him, New Zealand collapsed similarly in their own first innings on the third morning, which meant that he redeemed himself well in the second innings – after the foundation had been laid by Pujara and Vijay again. This time he wouldn’t throw it away, and made sure he remained unbeaten even as Ravindra Jadeja went great guns at the other end. He will learn from this and be hopeful India don’t need an extra bowler. His performance at silly mid-off and silly mid-on was entertaining, too, and he did well to pouch a few important catches.
Wriddhiman Saha (0 and DNB) – 5/10
Saha was castled second ball by Trent Boult as part of the great Indian collapse in the first innings, but was pretty tidy (again) with his gloves behind the wicket for all the 20 Kiwi wickets. His batting may need some more confidence, but he is proving how important a specialist keeper is in this form of the game. He is no Dhoni, but it’s just unfortunate that he had that act to follow. He can’t be compared to Dhoni, who was more of a batting keeper and captain for most of his career.
R. Ashwin (40; 4/93 and 6/132) – 9/10
Once again, Ashwin was probably the most valuable player in a Test match. His batting was assured, and better than most of his top order teammates, while he showed that he was ready to toil in hot, humid weather for long spells in order to get those wickets. They didn’t come easy, but when they did, he was rewarded in a heap. He tasted no success on the second day, but changed things with Jadeja on the third and fifth day, taking some very important top-order wickets. His ball to Williamson in the first innings will talked about for a long time – also his 200th wicket in Test cricket. He became the second fastest to reach 200 in the history of Test cricket – five Tests quicker than Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. In terms of time (years taken), Ashwin was fifth – behind Warne, Graeme Swann, Ian Botham and Kapil Dev. It was also his 20th five-for in 37 matches.
R. Jadeja (42 and 50; 5/73 and 1/58) – 9/10
As close as a perfect Test match for ‘Sir’ – who made a glorious comeback with two counter-attacking innings, a superb fifer and some unbelievably accurate bowling. He averages a mere 16 in Asia, a record on its own, and is closer to that bowling all-rounder India so desperately look for. He may not be able to do it outside of the sub-continent, but under Anil Kumble, his bowling is only bound to find more direction. The next 12 matches will be a good test for his endurance.
Mohammed Shami (0/35, 2/18) – 6/10
After a patchy first innings, Shami took two crucial wickets in the second – of B J Watling and Mark Craig in quick succession – softening up the lower order for Ashwin to complete the task. There wasn’t much else for him to do, but as he eases into the series, India will look to him as their strike bowler and leader in the department. They will hope he gets more top-order wickets as the season wears on.
Umesh Yadav (1/33, 0/23) – 6/10
A top-order wicket – Martin Guptill – in the first innings is like gold dust for pace bowlers in these conditions. He didn’t get to bowl much to get into a rhythm, but he is likely to soon be replaced by Ishant Sharma once the lanky lad recovers from his illness.