As expected, India thrashed New Zealand 2-0 in the Tests and while the victory in Bangalore wasn't as convincing as one would have liked, the team drew a lot of positives from the series.
Though the form of veterans like Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan is a worrying factor, youngsters like Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha made a strong impression. This series was seen as a precursor for youngsters to prepare themselves for the tougher challenges that lie ahead when England and Australia will visit India, and they showed with their sparkling show that they deserve to play both sides.
Pujara made a resounding comeback with a stroke-filled 159 in Hyderabad where he impressed with his composure and back-foot strokeplay, and though his returns in Bangalore were not as strong he can be assured of a run in Tests. Ojha scalped 13 wickets in the series but has yet to play a Test match outside of Asia and his bowling action is being questioned in hushed tones.
Of the four younger players on whom there was much riding, India's lead spinner and No. 3 batsman emerged from the Test series with their reputations enhanced.
Kohli and Ashwin were consistently good, at times very, very good. Kohli has been in incredible form since he reached his first Test century in Adelaide against Australia in January. In 16 ODIs since then he scored 1026 runs at an astonishing average of 73.28, with five centuries and three half-centuries. This form was carried into this series, with Kohli beginning with 58 in Hyderabad.
Though he played some fine shots and forged a century stand with Pujara, it wasn't the kind of innings Kohli would be proud of. He was streaky and was dropped by Ross Taylor when he was in the forties. And the manner in which he got out playing an uncharacteristically slapdash shot, took the sheen off his half-century.
But this is a cricketer who rectifies his errors swiftly and that’s exactly what Kohli did in Bangalore. He walked in when India were in 67 for 3 in the first innings, and when Sachin Tendulkar departed that became 80 for 4 in response to New Zealand's first-innings 365. Kohli was discreet early on and chose the right balls to hit. Anything on his pads was put to the midwicket or square leg boundaries with authoritative disdain and when the ball was in the half-volley corridor his cover-drives sent the ball racing away. When Kohli reached his century, his reaction was beatific. There were no expletives or vacuous screams, just a warm smile while kissing the Indian badge on helmet. A boy had become a man.
His unbeaten 51 in the second innings was equally crucial, for Kohli lifted the spirit of the team when the clouds of defeat had started hovering. His unbeaten 96-run partnership with MS Dhoni for the sixth wicket proved decisive and sealed the match for India from the unease of 166 for 5 chasing 261 for the victory. Kohli remained unfazed by the pressure, instead tucking into the bowlers to swing the momentum back India’s way. With runs in Australia and 212 in three innings here, Kohli has confirmed the perception that he's a batsman of pedigree and longevity.
With the ball, Ashwin snapped up 18 wickets – including three five-wicket hauls - in two Tests series at a phenomenal average of 13.11 and strike-rate of 29.70 and was adjudged Man of the Series. He has seemingly replaced Harbhajan Singh in the Test and ODI squad and the variations in his repertoire are copious. He can spin it, has an effective carom ball, and possesses a nifty straighter one. He’s hungry for wickets, and doesn’t flag.
New Zealand’s batsmen had no answer to Ashwin, who bamboozled them at his will. He tossed the ball up and tweaked the length of his balls masterfully. The batsmen tried to play him in the crease off the back foot and tried sweep him off line, but none of these tactics worked. Ashwin read the batsmen's mind astutely.
Forty-nine wickets in eight Tests is an outstanding record but one must not lose perspective. Of those 49 wickets, 40 have come from five matches at home against West Indies and New Zealand. Ashwin was completely ineffective in Australia where he managed just nine wickets in three Tests, and his average and strike-rate rose to 62.77 and 112.0 respectively. Even at home, Ashwin is yet to play against a strong side. The upcoming Test series against England and Australia at home will reflect Ashwin's quality and skills as a spinner, and test his temperament.
Proving his mettle outside the subcontinent must be a priority and Ashwin must polish his skills and add more weapons to his armoury to counter all situations and oppositions. He would do well to seek the help of Erapalli Prassana who, perhaps, was the only offspinner who proved highly successful in countries like Australia and New Zealand. Developing a quicker delivery along the lines of a flipper of legspinner might just make Ashwin a complete spinner.
For now, Kohli and Ashwin are beacons of hope for India as their veterans subside in the twilight of their careers.