Ending a 33-year drought

Seen in terms of the conditions and the opposition, India’s ten-wicket win against New Zealand in Hamilton is an admirable achievement but no more; where it gains in significance is the fact that it was the first time Tendulkar found himself on the winning side in five tours, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Two days before the first Test, the bijou nets facility at Seddon Park hosted an absorbing, cricket-dense interplay. Up close at the nets is a good way to get a feel for the game — television foreshortens the spectacle, and as a result the truly remarkable seems commonplace. But watching from either just behind the batsman or at an angle from side-on, it’s difficult not to marvel at how quickly batsmen decide, move, and play. It’s also difficult not to ma rvel at how much a bowler, whatever his style of delivery, puts in.

This particular day had, among other match-ups, Ishant Sharma bowling to Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar is always fantastic to watch in one-on-one contests, for it is here that he truly bats “on the go”, as the great George Headley once described his best batting. Ishant is a particularly difficult bowler to face in the nets because his natural in-swing, cut, and bounce are difficult to contend with when not facing him six balls in a row — the sense of rhythm and relative comfort a batsman might build when he’s facing an over in the middle is compromised by the staccato nature of a nets session.

Anyway, Tendulkar is facing Ishant, and from right behind, it immediately becomes clear that all the talk of the great man’s reflexes slowing is codswallop. Perhaps the truly discerning can perceive a change, but if a batsman can drive off the back-foot through cover a ball that has slanted into him in one blink of the eye, he must be close to the top of his game. But this is where the story turns remarkable. Not only has Tendulkar the time to play this most outrageous of strokes, he has the time to notice that Ishant’s wrist isn’t behind the ball in delivery, and the fingers are slipping down one side because the wrist is snapping too soon — and this has been observed from 20 yards away against a backdrop of mossy trees and Hamilton traffic. Tendulkar enquires if the bowler is trying to leg-cut the ball, and receives the reply that no, it was the attempted in-swinger.

“Yeah, I thought so,” says Tendulkar, “but why aren’t you releasing it fully? Don’t worry if you over-pitch it, release it with backspin, eventually the control will come.”

The 20-year-old Ishant doesn’t make the change immediately, but a quarter of an hour later, the vicious in-swinger of three-quarter length is making its appearance more frequently. Tendulkar, however, has few problems with it.

In isolation, these 20 minutes might interest only the cricket nut. But they reflect why this Indian side has developed into a unit with genuine claims as the world’s best. Sure, Ishant took four New Zealand wickets in the first innings after M. S. Dhoni decided to bowl, including three in the first session that saw New Zealand crash to 60 for six. And the fast bowler definitely looked better for the session with Tendulkar, who himself made 160, an innings kissed by genius. But the interaction was symptomatic how this team goes about its business.

One only had to wait another half-hour to watch Rahul Dravid guiding Lakshimpathy Balaji, making a comeback, to a discomfiting length. “We enjoy each other’s success, we help each other a lot when it comes to cricket, on and off the field,” said Dhoni, the Indian captain. “We create an environment where every individual feels comfortable. We give the best facility where cricketers can perform because they are the assets of the side. We have a good mixture of experienced guys and youngsters who want to perform and are talented. Each and every thing we do on and off the field, we take pride in that. If we continue to do that, plenty of good things will happen to us.”

Plenty of good things happened to India in Hamilton, where it won its first Test in New Zealand in 33 years. This New Zealand side might not have the likes of Sir Richard Hadlee, Glenn Turner, Martin Crowe, or even Shane Bond, and it might not have the best record in Test cricket over the last four years, but it has shown that it can compete hard, defeating England in the last Test played in Hamilton. India, however, didn’t allow New Zealand to within a bargepole of parity. The conditions were such that they privileged the better side, and India, thanks to Dhoni’s street-smartness, had the best of them. There was just enough movement for the seamers on the first day before the strip flattened into one good for batting; there was turn on day four, for rough areas had developed where the bowlers exhausted their action.

But none of this was over the top. When the conditions are loaded in favour of the bowlers the difference between the sides reduces; it’s more of a lottery. But over four days at Seddon Park, New Zealand couldn’t bridge the gulf that separated it from India. So where does this rank among India’s achievements abroad, which have been considerable in the last eight years?

“Why do you always want to compare things?” asked Dhoni after the Test, when this question was put to him. It was a revealing answer, for he has maintained that he doesn’t bother terribly with context; he lives, so to speak, in the moment. His team appears to do so as well, and this more than anything else is the one thing common to all successful athletes. It isn’t remotely as easy as it sounds — the very need to compare shows most of us flit readily between the past, the present, and the future. But a lot of following sport is comparison, glorying in the past, and fantasising. So the question needs answering.

One way of addressing it is to list a few of India’s legendary cricketers who haven’t won in New Zealand. Anil Kumble, Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly — now that’s some list, and while it doesn’t answer the question, it gives a sense of how difficult touring Indian sides have found New Zealand. The Test wins in Australia and South Africa were momentous achievements, considering the quality of the opposition; the series win in the West Indies and England were noteworthy, for they too came after a long wait, and against opposition that was better than this New Zealand side. Seen in terms of the conditions and the opposition, the ten-wicket win in Hamilton is an admirable achievement but no more; where it gains in significance is the fact that it was the first time Tendulkar found himself on the winning side in five tours.