At the historic Eden Gardens, in front of 12,068 people, India became the No. 1 team in the world with a 178-run victory over New Zealand and captured their fourth series trophy on the trot.
It isn’t groundbreaking for a team to dominate in their own conditions. And granted, the heat and the pitches left New Zealand feeling out of place – picture Mr Bean in an MI6 facility – but when you watch R Ashwin conjuring wickets, or Mohammed Shami demolishing stumps; when you watch M Vijay leaving the ball or Cheteshwar Pujara attacking the spinners; when you watch Virat Kohli raising his game, it is difficult not to wonder whether India have found themselves an XI capable of becoming something special.
New Zealand did the best they could in the absence of their regular captain and best batsman Kane Williamson. He had finally recovered from a fever to come out of his hotel room and watch the match from the ground. He would have felt proud of Tom Latham’s polished 74. He would have enjoyed Matt Henry’s big-hearted performance. He would have wanted to run out to the field when the ninth wicket fell and do his little bit for his men. But 376 was too big a target in the final innings.
The coin was in love with Kohli, doing as he bid for a sixth time in a row, in Kolkata. The weather too wanted to be on his good side, giving him the perfect conditions to ambush New Zealand late on the second day. In Bhuvneshwar Kumar, he also had the ideal weapon to exploit a pitch that offered seam, swing and variable bounce.
On the fourth day, when conditions had become better for batting, India remained tenacious. They remained patient. They were a little petulant too, putting the umpire under needless pressure every time the ball hit pad or beat bat. India often get on rolls like these. But it isn’t often that they make it last. Someone gives it away. A ball down leg. A wicket thrown away. This XI, though, may just be learning to shed those bad habits.
Take Ashwin for example. He had seen that Latham had changed his technique; that he was taking a shorter front stride so that he could be in a better position to play the ball that doesn’t turn and avoid being lbw. It paid off beautifully.
He survived the first few minutes. His footwork grew assured. A good cover drive off a half-volley got him going. A delectable flick shot later in the innings exemplified that he was reading the length early and well. He went to tea unbeaten on 74.
Ashwin got him in his first over after tea. The ball was looped up. It was bowled wide. It was a tease. Like the smell of chocolate to a man who has never eaten anything other than salad. Latham went for that sinful cover drive and the outside edge was taken by Wriddhiman Saha, moving smoothly to his left.
And then there was Shami and his sexy reverse swing. BJ Watling read that a fuller delivery was tailing into him. Appropriately, he brought his front pad down the line and made sure the bat came down close to it. A second later, he was watching his off stump cartwheeling all over the place. The ball had moved one way in the air and then promptly the other way off the pitch to beat the outside edge. Shami can’t possibly have intended for that to happen; it would just be scary if he did.
Twelve out of the 20 wickets India took in Kolkata went to the seamers. Admittedly, the pitch suited them better in the early stages, but not often have India made use of that advantage. On the fourth day, when conventional swing went AWOL along with the uneven pace and bounce, they used what was given to them – scoreboard pressure and reverse swing – brilliantly. This is why India should feel upbeat about their chances. Their fast bowlers aren’t place-holders for the spinners anymore.