If Indian players feel that performing well Down Under — be it in Australia or New Zealand — is their ultimate challenge, rest assured, players from these two countries feel much the same way about playing in India. When Australia last toured India, the term “last frontier” was doing the rounds, with Steve Waugh’s men feeling that a Test series win here would be the icing on the cake. That, quite famously, was not to be.
New Zealand, who will set foot on Indian soil on Sunday evening, must be feeling that this is the series to prove their worth. Reports emanating from New Zealand a month ago suggested that the Black Caps were quite serious about improving their track record in India.
They were simulating Indian pitches and conditions so that players could begin the acclimatisation process while at home itself. Time will tell us whether these novel methods will bear fruit. The Indian challenge for Australians and New Zealanders is more pronounced for the batsmen. In this regard, I think real time spent in the middle in hot and humid conditions, on dry wickets, is the ultimate instructor. When we came to India in 2001, the one batsman who just could not stop scoring runs was Matthew Hayden.
Till that tour, the big Queenslander was considered something of an under-achiever. Few thought about the fact that he had played in Indian conditions, having toured with an academy team early in his career.
Three Tests later, his little-known trip to India had been well-documented, and once again there was proof that there is no substitute for real time in the middle.
The other batsman who found some consistent touch with the bat was Steve Waugh, and he had played in India a number of times from the late ’80s. Quite simply, experience is the best teacher in his case.
For spinners, the tour to India is something of a double-edged sword. While you have pitches that any spinner would trade his right arm for, there are also batsmen who make the best in the business look like ordinary journeymen. The conditions are there to be exploited but sadly for the slow bowlers, Indians are so good in using their feet that the spinners’ wiles often add upto nothing.
Bowlers of the calibre of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralidharan have little to show for their efforts in India, and that is great testimony to the abilities of the Indian batsmen.
With the batsmen taking time to come to grips with conditions and the spin bowlers being rendered somewhat ineffective by every Indian batsman’s natural affinity to spin bowling, the workload falls on the pacemen.
These are not dream conditions for any fast bowler. The weather provides the greater challenge, with humidity proving the biggest enemy, followed closely by dry, soft wickets.
On the last tour to India, Glenn McGrath would lose around six pounds of body weight by the end of the day, after his bowling. He tried to acclimatise to Indian conditions by not turning on the air-conditioner in his room.
He would have to down gallons of water and amber fluids to keep himself going. For any fast bowler this is the ultimate test — playing pace has always been the Achilles heel for batsmen, but keeping oneself going for five days is very, very challenging even for the fittest.
The Black Caps must have all these factors playing on their minds as they take that long journey to India. They are without Shane Bond, and that must be a blow to them.
Captain Stephen Fleming has played a few good knocks in the subcontinent and he will look to lead from the front in the two Tests. Daniel Vettori, on the other hand, will know that he will have a big challenge on his hands.
The Black Caps are methodical, systematic and hard-working — a perfect complement to the unpredictable genius that makes the Indian team so exciting.
By the time we join these two for the tri-series, these rivals would have got a good measure of each other as well as the conditions. It will be up to us to catch up.