New Zealand have had a terrific year in international cricket. They won the World Test Championship mace and made it to the final of the T20 World Cup. Yet, there are question marks against their supremacy in both formats. In T20s, it is their template while playing away from home. And, the question marks are somewhat similar in the Test format. Except, it's not the template, but just playing away from home.
In their previous WTC cycle, New Zealand were unbeaten at home but won only one of their five Tests overseas. While it would be wrong to blame the Kiwis for the scheduling loopholes, they are on a path of greatness. Holding the number one Test ranking and the Test mace, the question that if they are indeed the best Test team at present is inevitable. The tag isn’t accessible until they win in all conditions, something that West Indies of the 1980s, Australia of the 2000s and South Africa from 2006 to 2014 did quite well.
The Kiwis now have a chance in their second WTC cycle. They are scheduled to play India and Pakistan away. Thus, they can kill two birds with one stone - strengthen their claim of an all-conditions Test unit and build on their WTC legacy. The Black Caps have always rose to the occasion but this just seems to be a tougher job at hand.
For starters, they haven’t played outside enough. They had the joint lowest number of Tests overseas in the previous WTC cycle. It is a big reason that despite doing well, they have not unlocked their full potential away from home. In Asia since 2015, their tally of eight Tests is better than only Zimbabwe and Ireland. England meanwhile have played 19 Tests.
Hence, a noticeable differential in batting average home and away is bound to appear. Even Kane Williamson, the New Zealand skipper, probably their best all-time batter and global superstar, averages 65.3 at home as compared to 41.4 away. A differential of 23.9 runs has often pushed his greatness into quandary. But how do someone improve their record without playing? Between October 2016 and December 2019, New Zealand did not play any Test cricket in England, South Africa, India and Australia. Although, Williamson’s away numbers have taken a further hit since 2019. And it is pretty much the same with other Kiwi batsmen.
India is going to be a tougher task. On their last two tours, the Kiwis have averaged only 22.5 and 23.4 with the bat.
Bowling fortunes have not provided much respite either. Their bowling average, in comparison, has been 47.6 and 42.1 respectively. Overall, the Kiwis average 42.1 runs per wicket with the ball in India, their worst in any country. A large part of it has to do with their bowling framework. New Zealand rely on pace. The only time they play more than one spinner in the line-up is when they are in Asia. Hence, they don’t get enough game time which ultimately prevents them from polishing their skills.
Spinners are pivotal for touring teams in India, as showcased by England in 2012. For New Zealand, the options lie in the specialist left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel, the all-rounders of similar bowling type in Mitchell Santner and Rachin Ravindra and the off-spinner William Somerville. That is an experience of only 37 Tests that has yielded 82 wickets to the quadruplet. Ravindra is yet to play Test cricket and none of the other three have a Test bowling strike-rate underneath 65. According to Gary Stead, the head coach, New Zealand are pondering the prospects of playing three spinners.
The challenge is humongous for the Kiwis with the ball but there are a couple of positives. They have three left-arm spinners up their sleeves. Since 2012, when a majority of the current bunch got together, Indian batsmen have averaged 54.8 against left-arm spin at home. It is a healthy number but still the least amongst all batting types. It is the one bowling type that has put India in a pickle on occasions. Steve O’Keefe’s 12 wickets for 70 runs in the 2017 Pune Test comes to mind.
In the pace department, they won’t have Trent Boult but do possess a couple of hit the deck bowlers in Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson who might be more useful to scruff the ball and also test the home batsmen on a more uncomfortable length. The defending champions will start their second WTC campaign with probably the toughest job in world cricket for any Test playing nation. It reflects in their own record. In the last 10 years, they have won at least one Test in every series in the sub-continent* except they have lost all their five Tests in India in the time frame.
“Everytime you play India at their home, you are the underdog. New Zealand know it will be tough,” Ross Taylor (108 Tests for New Zealand) was quoted as saying by ESPNCricinfo.
In pursuit of defending their title, the Kiwis will go through the crucible first up. But it's better sooner rather than later. They will get a good idea of their potential in demanding conditions. Even if they don’t emerge victorious, they will have crucial takeaways that should help them in their next sub-continent assignment, against Pakistan. Besides, the dynamics of a WTC cycle allow every team time to stage a comeback after a one series defeat, given it comes in the earlier stages of the cycle.
*New Zealand played a drawn Test series in Bangladesh in 2013