A year ago, the chances of the New Zealand team breaking down four of their test cricketing barricades seemed realistic.
They had equalled the national record of going seven test series undefeated after drawing 1-1 in England. They were in contention to:
- challenge for their first series victory in Australia in 30 years.
- host Australia in pursuit of their first series victory, also in 30 years.
- play South Africa (sans AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel) in the hunt for their first series victory in 15 attempts.
- visit India and earn their first series victory in 11 attempts.
To suggest the Black Caps could clean sweep that list of audacious goals was preposterous - New Zealand fans must be among the most realistic in the world - but to complete none of those objectives must rankle. This is a team that, when coming off the high of making a maiden World Cup final last February, was among the most marketable in the game; blokes who played competitive cricket with spirit rather than spite. They still match those criteria but their test credibility, as witnessed by the fourth innings capitulation at Indore, is wearing thin.
The starting XI could not be accused of inexperience. Seven had played 20 or more tests and an eighth, Luke Ronchi, had played 94 first-class games across 15 seasons.
"We're in a bit of a trough," coach Mike Hesson summarised.
"We were exposed in this series against an experienced side in tough conditions."
"There were a few soft dismissals. Most were brought about by fielders around the bat where, if you make half a mistake, you're out."
"There are times you can be over-positive," captain Kane Williamson added. "You want to get guys away from around the bat to make defensive cricket easier. If guys were to sit there and defend, that wouldn't be the answer either."
Upcoming selections for the home summer add extra spice to a seven-test menu, which includes two against Pakistan next month, two against Bangladesh in January and three against South Africa in March.
Martin Guptill struggled to score in the first two tests against India but looked New Zealand's best batsman in the third with 72 (where he was run out backing up at the non striker's end) and 29 (where he was the sixth wicket to fall). The half century was his first in nine innings, a drought stretching to 87 against Zimbabwe in the second test at Bulawayo. Before that it was 50 against Sri Lanka in Hamilton last December.
Fellow opener Jeet Raval, who was taken to Africa but didn't play, remains the obvious replacement if there's a change.
"Martin didn't have a lot of luck," Hesson said. "He was caught off his foot, bowled off his elbow and run out at the non-striker's end in three of the six innings. He's found some different ways to get out."
Hesson said a Pakistan-New Zealand 'A' match before the test series should firm up the squad to start the summer.
"I can guarantee [Jeet] is likely to be playing the New Zealand 'A' match. That game will help firm up our views."
If Tim Southee remains fit, a five-way battle looms for three pace bowling spots with Trent Boult (new ball) and Neil Wagner (first change) expected to hold sway. The key decision is whether Southee or Doug Bracewell can justify replacing Matt Henry, one of the better performers at Kolkata and Indore.
The return of Jeetan Patel to replace the injured Mark Craig was a needs-must decision as a quality off-spinner who had bowled plenty of overs in English county cricket before the tour. Hesson confirmed Mitchell Santner, who took 10 wickets at 52.40 against India, would be considered as a specialist spinner as much as an all-rounder at home.
Given New Zealand will only play one spinner for the majority of the tests, he's expected to have the selection edge over Craig and Ish Sodhi.