New Zealand in India: A Tale of Two Captains

On September 22nd, India take on New Zealand at Kanpur in the first of three Test matches between the sides. Both sides meet off the back of contrasting success in their last Test series. India enter the series off the back of a “dominating” 2-0 series win in the West Indies. On the other hand, New Zealand suffered a humiliating loss at the hands of South Africa. Although the scoreline of 1-0 suggests a close series, it was actually a terribly one-sided affair. The first match was washed out, and in the second, South Africa won by a huge margin of 204 runs. The difference between the success of the two sides? The captaincy.

A Good Toss to Lose 

Over the course of five days, a Test captain has to make several crucial decisions. Some will argue that none are as crucial than that made at the toss. When Kane Williamson, captain of the black caps, won the toss in the series decider against South Africa – it seemed that they had a huge advantage in the game. Until Kane Williamson chose to field.

South Africa thrived in the batting-friendly conditions, and ended up declaring in both of their innings. By the time Williamson’s men were batting on the final day, the pitch had significantly deteriorated. The dismissal of Ross Taylor in the fourth innings to a Dale Steyn delivery that hardly bounced summed up New Zealand’s poor fortunes, as they were skittled for just 214 and 195.

Meanwhile, in the West Indies, India captain Virat Kohli was more successful in his judgements. One such example can be found in the first Test match in Antigua. There was a light covering of grass on the otherwise straw covered wicket, and local experts predicted that the first session would be the best to bowl on. However, Kohli elected to bat – knowing that a strong first session would reap rewards when the pitch flattened out in the later sessions. Kohli’s judgement was sound. India made it to 72-1 at lunch, with them eventually declaring on 566.

Making a decision at a toss is never easy. You may win the toss on a batting paradise and elect to bat, but find yourself at 2-3 due to poor batting irrelevant of the pitch. That’s what happened to Azhar Ali in the recent ODI at Lord’s.

However, the experience of a captain is what governs their decision. Both Williamson and Kohli are very young captains and are gaining experience all the time. Kohli took over test captaincy from Mahendra Singh Dhoni prior to India’s tour of Australia in the winter of 2014 and has captained India to three series victories already. Moreover, by being able to captain an IPL franchise, Kohli had been previously exposed to captaincy – ensuring that he already had some vital experience.

Kane Williamson, though, only took over captaincy earlier this year, after Brendon McCullum retired. His first Test series was against Zimbabwe, which posed no challenge to the talented New Zealand line up. This was the first real test of his captaincy. It is fair to say that it did not go to plan and left him distraught after one poor misjudgement.

What to Expect from the Captains

An away series in India is always a challenge. For Kane Williamson it will be a challenge, perhaps even tougher than South Africa. A key focus point for both captains will center around their spin attack and how best to utilise it. As we have seen with Virat Kohli, he is not afraid to hand the new ball to the spinners if the pitch is turning a lot. In fact, Ravichandran Ashwin is statistically one of the best new ball bowlers of the decade. Against Sri Lanka and South Africa, Ashwin was handed the responsibility of the new ball frequently, and he thrived in those conditions.

Yet, it will be interesting to see the approach taken by Kane Williamson. It would be a very bold move to take the new ball away from the talented pair of Trent Boult and Tim Southee, which would only be done by a daring captain. Another reason why Williamson will be reluctant to do this, is the fact that the spinners at his disposal are not as prolific as India’s. While the pair of Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner contains two highly talented bowlers, who have displayed their skill in limited over matches, they are yet to settle into Test cricket.

Another crucial aspect which both teams must decide, is the composition of both sides. Before they become heavy turners, Indian pitches are usually quite flat and favour batting. Against South Africa, New Zealand opted for 5-specialist batsmen – with BJ Watling, the keeper, at 6. More importantly, Williamson played 4 specialist fast bowlers. It is expected the Doug Bracewell will be replaced by Sodhi, but that leaves New Zealand still playing 3 fast bowlers. A key question for Williamson is whether he ought to remove a fast bowler for an extra specialist batsman or a batting all rounder.

Playing only 2 seamers in India is not ridiculous at all. In the Nagpur Test against South Africa, Kohli played just one fast bowler in the form of Ishant Sharma. They won that Test by over 300 runs.

This shows the extreme nature of the pitches in India, meaning that unorthodoxy is usually a key to success. Therefore, with this in mind, it will be intriguing to see the solution proposed by Williamson, as he strives to find the right balance in his side.

Many experts predict that Williamson will on the whole opt for three fast bowlers and two spinners on the tour. However, he will need to accommodate according to each of individual pitch – as no two pitches are the same. After all, it may be the case that the pitches in India surprise us.

This conundrum is a much easier question to Virat Kohli. His experience means that he has captained a series played in near identical conditions. Moreover, in that series India won crushingly – proving that he succeeded in his captaincy. Therefore, for Virat Kohli, it is just a case of sticking with his tried and tested methods to produce the same results.

Verdict on New Zealand in India

This series is expected to be a close contest and will be sure to entertain the crowds one way or another. However, India hold a significant advantage going into the series. Not only is their current form much better, but also the home advantage is a huge benefit. It is for this reason that India will win the series, but the approach taken by both captains will provide a great insight into their cricketing minds, and will be great indication of the Test futures of the two sides.

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