Perfect start to the season for Team India

Updated: 28 August 2012 13:38 IST

It was as close to the perfect Test match, especially at the start of the season, as India could have hoped for.

It was as close to the perfect Test match, especially at the start of the season, as India could have hoped for.

Admittedly, New Zealand didn't pose the stiffest challenge, but it's well worth remembering that India themselves had their fair share of problems in Test cricket, especially overseas, in the season gone by. It was India's first Test since Adelaide in January this year, then they slumped to their second consecutive 4-0 drubbing overseas, and it was also the first Test following the retirements of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman.

There had been some apprehensions about how India would cope; those doubts were emphatically erased over four days at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium in Hyderabad, with an unusually meek New Zealand and a surface that offered considerable assistance to India's spinners.

Not too much, of course, ought to be read into the innings and 115-run drubbing of New Zealand, totally out of sorts with bat and field, and just about passable with the ball. Even so, nothing is better for confidence than a commanding victory at the very start of a season that includes 10 home Tests, including four each against England and Australia.

Needless to say, neither of those two sides will capitulate as abjectly as New Zealand did in Hyderabad. Indeed, New Zealand themselves will perhaps put up more of a fight in the second Test starting at Bangalore on August 31. India, though, will do well to have a close look at the first Test template if they are to maximise home advantage and play to their strengths for the rest of the season.

R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, the spin twins, finished with combined match figures of 18 for 177, Ashwin taking 12 for 85 and Ojha complementing him quite admirably with his controlled left-arm spin that fetched him 6 for 92. Neither will expect similar returns to come as easily in the matches to follow, but their potency on tracks with some purchase was all too obvious.

The Hyderabad surface was far from a dustbowl. There was good bounce and adequate turn if you tried hard enough, but it's debatable if it was a 'real turning track', as Ross Taylor labelled it. It was nothing like the designer pitches of the early to mid '90s when India brushed aside all before them with nonchalant ease, but a pitch that helped India play to their strengths without pushing home advantage too far. Surely, there is a message there somewhere?

A return to home conditions signalled a return to the match-influencing ways of Ashwin, who has effortlessly slipped into the role of lead spinner after having replaced Harbhajan Singh in the playing XI. Ashwin had taken 22 wickets in his debut three-Test series against the West Indies in 2011, and managed nine wickets in three further Tests in Australia. His 12-wicket haul in Hyderabad means he has 43 wickets in seven Tests, the most by an Indian bowler in his first seven games.

Ashwin and Ojha, who have been playing together for nine years now at various levels - for junior South Zone teams, senior South Zone teams and now for India - enjoy bowling in each other's company. Ashwin is often the attacking arm while Ojha is brilliant in Indian conditions in bottling up one end and keeping the pressure on. They interchange roles when the need arises, and while they are far from cut-throat competitors, there is a healthy rivalry from which the team should benefit over the next eight or so months.

Zaheer Khan went wicketless for only the seventh time in 84 Tests and was understandably rusty in his first spell, but as the match progressed and he got a few overs behind him, he appeared in far better rhythm, a very encouraging sign. Umesh Yadav, the other fast bowler, was sharp and hustled the batsmen even on a slowish surface.

The biggest gain from the Hyderabad Test, indisputably, was Cheteshwar Pujara. On his comeback to international cricket after 19 months, much of it spent recovering from a serious knee injury, Pujara looked the part at No. 3. It wasn't so much that he made 159 as the manner in which he acquitted himself at that position that was impressive. Having won the nod ahead of Virat Kohli to bat at the position embellished by Dravid for so long, Pujara was in his element, stabilising the situation in Kohli's company after India had stuttered to 125 for 3, and then exhibiting his penchant for back foot play with brilliance square on the offside.

New Zealand didn't pose the sternest challenge, but their best suit in the first Test was the bowling. The aplomb with which Pujara handled the New Zealand attack comprehensively justified the faith reposed in him by the think-tank. He and Kohli showed no signs of panic after the three most experienced batsmen had fallen relatively cheaply, suggesting that they aren't averse to embracing responsibility and getting the team over the line.

Almost as eye-catching, pun unintended, was India's close-in catching, especially with the spinners in operation. Sehwag pulled off a screamer at slip, Kohli was brilliant at leg-slip, and both were kept busy by crease-tied, spin-shocked New Zealand batsmen.

All told, Hyderabad was a dream start to the season, the job over and done with inside four days despite the elements cutting into play considerably. The road ahead is unlikely to be as full of roses, but with the cobwebs dusted away, India will feel they are well on their way to being fully ready by the time England come calling, in October.

Topics : Cricket India VVS Laxman Pragyan Ojha Ravichandran Ashwin New Zealand New Zealand in India 2012
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