The arrival of New Zealand cricket team has officially announced the start of a long season in India. After the Kiwis, England, Australia and Bangladesh will visit India for a record 13 Tests, eight ODIs and three T20Is. Needless to say, India will be the centre of cricketing actions.
But the first call of action will be in Tests, wherein the Virat Kohli-led team will focus on achieving the top spot in the traditional format. India missed that opportunity while in the West Indies, thanks to rain and poor management, and conceded the crown to neigbours Pakistan.
A win in the fourth and final Test at Port of Spain was all that India needed to become the No. 1 side in Tests. Yes, it was the plan and also the prediction, considering how Kohli & Co had dominated the Caribbean team in their own backyard.
India managed to improve some overseas stats and set few more records straight with a bilateral series win, before returning home, well aware that come September, there will be no time to rest.
Thus, New Zealand bring the first challenge at home front, starting September 22. There will be a three-match Test series followed by five One-Day Internationals. With that comes the never-ending dialogue of how will India fare at home, and what strategies should India adopt to preserve an otherwise impressive home record.
Last time India hosted New Zealand in a Test series, it was a short one with only two matches and two Twenty20 Internationals, and the emphasis for the visiting team was more on the upcoming 2012 ICC World T20 in September.
But still, the manner in which they lost the series under the captaincy of Ross Taylor, 0-2, can be read as a part of a larger norm still persisted when it comes to five-day matches in India, or for that matter of fact, in the sub-continent. The so-called spin factor.
Then, they came unprepared with one known spinner only, in Jeetan Patel, and the right-arm bowler could have made a difference had he got a partner. Kane Williamson, then a prodigious talent, tried his off-breaks but his were never going to trouble an Indian batting line-up which had the likes of Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, etc.
It pretty much summed up the fact that Patel was New Zealand's second highest wicket-taker in the tour with seven scalps, one lesser than Tim Southee. Here, it would be an injustice if we were not to mention the brilliance of Southee, and of course Trent Boult.
In the second Test at Bangalore, Southee took a seven-for to help Kiwis briefly stay in the match, but his effort was not enough as India responded with Ravichandran Ashwin's five-four in the third innings. Ashwin (18) and Pragyan Ojha (13) combined to take 31 wickets in the series, and it proved the difference between the two teams.
Now, with a confident captain at helm, and records to back up his pro-active strategies, India will once again start as the favourites against Williamson and his men. And one aspect which will hold sway to the proceedings, as expected, will be the nature of the pitch.
After leading India to a rare series win in Sri Lanka, wherein spinners had dominated the show, Kohli returned home wiser and meaner – having learned that there is no advantage like home advantage. And for India, that advantage is spin.
In the series against South Africa, Kohli & Co exploited the home advantage to the hilt, and won the series comfortably. India won the four-match series 3-0, with two of those wins coming inside three days, at Mohali and Nagpur.
Ashwin, once again, was the pick of the bowlers, taking 31 wickets. He was followed by Ravindra Jadeja with 23 scalps. Then, there was the South African duo of Imran Tahir and Simon Harmer, taking 14 and 10 wickets each. And none of the pace bowlers hit double figures.
The Indian camp made no efforts to hide their preference by providing turning tracks during the South Africa series, and even stressed on the legitimacy of playing the 'hosts' card when the question of sporting spirit started doing the rounds after rank-turners befuddled the visitors and statisticians alike.
The New Zealand series will be no different. There will be abrasive pitches and slow bowlers will have a field day during the three-match series. This very proposition has allowed the visitors to come prepared, unlike in the previous visits.
They are not expecting surprises. 'Spinner's tale' still dominates cricketing folklore in India. And nobody should complain since there is no shame in fighting with the weapon of one's choice. Put one's best foot forward, yes, that's the idiomatic expression about it.
That's precisely how the Kiwis have planned the tour, by selecting spinners. They have taken the old adage of, when in Rome do as Romans. In India, they will be required to play like the Indians.
In the long history of cricket in India, there hardly was a series which was won by the pacers. Yes, there were indomitable visitors with lethal pace attack giving a match to the spin, but it's always been spin for India, and also for the visiting teams which did the trick.
This visiting team has a troika of spinners in Adam Santner, Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig, pitting against the celebrated Indian trio of Aswhin, Jadeja and Amit Mishra. The three, except the Indian-born Sodhi, whose roots are in Ludhiana, may sound too foreign to be spinners, but they are known to do their defined job well, as evident in the ICC Twenty20 match in Nagpur in March.
To the surprise of everyone, New Zealand played three spinners in the match and shot out India for a paltry 79, with the tweekers themselves accounting for all but one wicket. That's how the Kiwis plan, and in this series too, they will do what the home team does.
In fact, the strategy of fielding spin-heavy attacking XIs has seemed to yield results for visiting teams in recent Test matches in India. During the above-mentioned South Africa series, the Proteas spinners have helped themselves to six four-wicket hauls.
And in 2012, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar did the unthinkable by outperforming Indian spinners, and helped England win the four-match series 2–1. The Swann-Panesar duo scalped 37 wickets, three more than what Ashwin-Ojha could account for India.
Besides, the touring New Zealand team will take heart in the obvious fact that the contemporary Indian batsmen, except few gifted ones, lack the will to play spin and survive the rigours of Test match. As a result, the instances of batsmen scoring huge individual scores has come down drastically. The same applies to the visiting batsmen.
Combine these facts, and we can safely assume that when the two teams meet in Kanpur on September 22, the main battle will be between the spinners and batsmen. Green Park may well have a greenish top on the first morning, but it's still an Indian ground. By the third day's play, there will be enough foot marks and breaks on the pitch for spinners to play that proverbial Indian Test.
Expect the first battle to set the tone of the series, before the duels in Kolkata and Indore – two traditional spin-friendly grounds – hit the peak.
For New Zealand, to register their first ever series win in India, the spin trio of Santner, Sodhi and Craig will need to do what Indian spinners do. Win matches.