In the press conference after losing the first Test, Virat Kohli showed mild annoyance at inquiries whether India would be under duress in the second match that starts on Saturday. He averred that the team would come back with renewed intent to square the series.
It is incumbent on captains to keep the morale of their players intact after a setback. Dithering in such situations can easily be taken as fear within the rank and file, and could lead to losing the next battle even before it has started.
But I’d like to believe Kohli’s optimism is not mere bravado. Though the margin of defeat in the first Test—by 10 wickets—was huge, this must be juxtaposed in the backdrop of how the team has performed in the past 15 months or so.
It was India’s first defeat after losing to Australia at Perth in mid-December 2018. That rubber then stood at 1-1. The third Test at Melbourne India won to take a 2-1 lead, and the fourth at Sydney was drawn to give India a historic first Test series win in Australia.
Since then, Kohli’s team won seven Tests in a row: against West Indies (3), South Africa (3) and Bangladesh (1). Admittedly, none of these teams was strong. West Indies are still struggling in the 5-day format, South Africa are in the process of rebuilding, and Bangladesh, without Tamim and Sakib, were half a team.
Nonetheless, the manner and margin of India’s victories was stellar, making their position as the No.1 Test side more robust, and raising expectations of winning in New Zealand. Playing overseas had been India’s biggest problem for decades, but after winning in Australia, a psychological hump seemed to have been overcome.
The Kiwis had hit a slump, whitewashed by Australia in an away series. Batting mainstay Kane Williamson’s form had been poor, pace spearhead Trent Boult was returning from injury, and Neil Wagner missed the first Test for the birth of his first child.
So many things seemed to favour India that the result was totally unexpected. Several reasons have been put up to explain why India sank at Wellington. I’ll combine these into one: failure of India’s best batsmen—Kohli and Pujara—and best bowlers—Bumrah and Shami—to make any impact.
I can’t remember something like this happening over the past couple of years, so it is probably an aberration. Or is it something deeper like fatigue or complacency? But whatever the issue, the Wellington result showed how vulnerable this could leave the team.