India overseas have lost six of their last seven completed ODIs and nine of their last 10 Tests. Swaddled in those defeats was a cliffhanger of a draw at Johannesburg, where MS Dhoni’s men dominated only to be deprived by Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers on the final afternoon, and an equally topsy-turvy tied ODI at Auckland. Now that the latest wipe-out in New Zealand has dislodged India from the No.1 spot, a placement that anyway drew immeasurably from a packed domestic calendar, the general tone going into the two-Test series against the Kiwis is that this Indian team overseas is rather more competitive in the longest format than it is in ODIs.
The viewpoint has little statistical backing. Over the past three years, since the 2011 World Cup win, India have failed to make an impact abroad. That of late they have been less of a pushover in Tests (the sample size being painfully small, two matches in South Africa) may have some element of truth to it, purely for reasons of team selection. Cheteshwar Pujara at No.3 in the Test line-up is like a shot of steroid into an inflamed muscle, so prettily has he filled Rahul Dravid’s big shoes. Of the ten times Pujara has crossed fifty, in 17 Tests, six times has he gone all the way to a century. A renowned aggregator of domestic triple–tons, Pujara also gets his runs at a fair rate, and averages almost 55 in List A cricket.
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It is confounding then that Pujara is yet to make his ODI debut. Even more confounding is that perpetual non-performers against the short ball such as Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma continue to get a long rope. Openers Shikhar Dhawan and M. Vijay did show signs of improvement across four innings in South Africa. The difference in their approach was palpable: the urge to score in the first Test gave way to a desire to build an innings in the second. And whenever the batsmen have shown a tendency to battle it out in the middle, as opposed to trying to hit unsuccessfully out of trouble, the results have been heartening, the typical cases in point being Vijay’s 97 and Ajinkya Rahane’s 96 at Durban, though their team did eventually go down by ten wickets.
THE LEADING LIGHTS
Across formats, Virat Kohli and Dhoni have been the leading lights. The young Delhiite has come to represent a new India’s batting spine; Dhoni, following Sachin Tendulkar's retirement, possibly stands for the entire corpus of experience that comprises contemporary Indian cricket. There are, however, traits of personality and preference that govern the latter’s actions. Dhoni is an ultra-defensive Test captain. And it’s not just his team selection that is plain weird. He picked debutant all-rounder Stuart Binny for the Hamilton game only to promote Ashwin over him in the batting order. Binny was then give a solitary over, even as Ambati Rayudu turned in three. It was as brainless and illogical a thing as any Dhoni has done.
Now the Indian captain’s decision to skip India’s only Tour game ahead of the Tests has generated the usual scurrilous chatter. The match at quaint Whangarei, which was not telecast, was Dhoni’s last chance to take a look at the Zaheer Khans, the Ishwar Pandeys and the Umesh Yadavs, and make up his mind as to who merited a place in the eleven in Auckland’s first Test. Is Ashwin’s solid batting, but underperforming off-spin, good enough to bring him back? Or does Ravindra Jadeja pip him to the post again? Does Pandey’s domestic experience count for a Test cap on a greentop? Is Zaheer fit and raring to lead the attack? Maybe Dhoni doesn’t need to watch his players to come to such crucial decisions. But it would have certainly sent across the right message if he had chosen to travel to Whangarei, instead of ‘resting’ with Kohli in Auckland.
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