Bangalore: I can't for the life of me remember who it was that called New Zealand a team of number sevens. Obviously, it was more appropriate during the Cairns-Harris-Astle-Latham-Larsen-Parore days, when almost everyone in the team could bat a bit, bowl a bit, field remarkably well, and even captain the side (remember Lee Germon?). Indeed, between Martin Crowe and Daniel Vettori, there hasn't really been a single New Zealand cricketer worth talking about. A notable exception was Shane Bond, who strutted his stuff for too short a while. Nathan Astle's 222 against England in 2002 also stands out in my mind as among the great counter-punching innings in recent Test history.
Anyway, that's all in the past. Right now, the New Zealand team wears an even more forlorn look. Partly because the only truly world-class performer in the country - Vettori - isn't around for the Tests. And partly because the current set of players have recently made West Indies look like a champion side. Partly also because Ross Taylor (42.80) is the only batsman in the side averaging more than 40 in Tests.
Mohandas Menon, whom we read so often on Wisden India, informs me that the 1056 No. 7 batsmen in Test history (prior to the Lord's Test between England and South Africa) have a cumulative average of 27.23. The likely New Zealand top six that will play the Tests in India - Taylor, Daniel Flynn, Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Kane Williamson (who has also captained the team) and BJ Watling - averages 34.15 between them. Slightly better than No. 7, but not by much.
Which brings me to the point: the India-New Zealand Test series starts this week, and it is one that will portend the direction in which India's new season will head. The team's in flux right now. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, automatic No. 3 and No. 5 in the Test team till recently, have vanished. Virat Kohli appears to have acquitted himself well, but we have no real assessment of Cheteshwar Pujara, Suresh Raina, Ajinkya Rahane or Subramanian Badrinath, the replacement options for Dravid and Laxman. The bowling attack looks all right, but has, traditionally, depended on the batsmen to take a lot of the burden off it.
Most people I have read recently seem to be of the opinion that it's a good thing India plays almost all of its cricket at home this season; it will help the process of transition and help players like Pujara and others settle down before tougher times abroad. If that's correct, and baptism by fire at, say, the WACA, is not the best way to start the process, then it is certainly a good thing that New Zealand should visit before England and Australia do.
At home, batsmen who have traditionally struggled against pace and swing should find things easier. Once the spinners come into play on typical Indian tracks in Hyderabad and Bangalore, the inexperience of Flynn, Williamson and Watling might stand them in poor stead. Meanwhile, with the battle-hardened Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Zaheer Khan to help the Indian youngsters along, the start of the season should go the way India wants it to.
It follows then that failure, individually or collectively, against New Zealand should be dealt with severely. With England and Australia - the two teams that whitewashed India in Test series last season - coming immediately afterwards, the Indians must use the series against New Zealand to make a big statement. Holes the size of Dravid and Laxman are not easy to plug, and those are the ones England and Australia will be targetting. It's non-stop cricket from here on, and the more individuals fail, the tougher it will be to find success as a team.
It's simple. If New Zealand cannot be beaten comprehensively, chances are that Australia and England will be beaten after a lot of kicking and screaming or, who knows, not at all. And on home ground, fans might not be willing to accept that eventuality, even those that were forgiving during the 0-4 wipeouts abroad.