New Zealand tours to India have always posed an interesting quandary. The Kiwis fly down approximately once in 4 years, usually on the cusp of a World Cup, or on the heels of one. They get short shrift as the precursor to a tough overseas challenge for Team India. It’s funny how their 3 previous visits have been around the same time as the Irani Trophy; no different this time either. It is also noteworthy that, revelling in their underdog status as they do, they perform better than most tourists in India. They have lost just 2 of their previous 8 Tests in India, albeit having won none. The last time India won 2 Tests against them in a series (home or away) was before Sachin Tendulkar had made his international debut. Admittedly, the current outfit lacks the pedigree of the earlier teams brought over by Stephen Fleming & Lee Germon. To add to their inexperience, Daniel Vettori’s men are also up against the No. 1 ranked Test team in full strength, rich vein of form and unbeaten for more than 2 years.
For the first time this year, India will go into a Test series with their first choice XV fully fit. Every member of the side selects himself, with just a rumour of debate regarding one of the reserve batsmen slots. Gautam Gambhir & V.V.S. Laxman’s return to fitness, and a combination of brave batting & fine fielding brought to the table by the young trio of Suresh Raina, Murali Vijay & Cheteshwar Pujara ensured that the contest was anything but, Yuvraj Singh’s double century in the Irani Trophy notwithstanding.
Tendulkar & Zaheer Khan were truly sensational against Australia. The only concern will be to ensure that they do not pick up injuries. Virender Sehwag, who had a relatively quiet series, should find the Kiwi attack to his liking. If he manages to overcome boredom & his tendency to underestimate weak spinners, all the tourists can do is pack the leg-side field and pray. One hopes that Rahul Dravid will strike it big, for his form remains imperative to our fortunes in South Africa later this winter. New Zealand, of course, would have talked in great detail about his recent vulnerability outside the off stump. Vijay & Pujara will make way for Gambhir & Laxman; unfair, but that is the way of international cricket. Gambhir though, is well aware that Vijay is breathing down his neck. It will, however, take much more to replace the stylist from Hyderabad, who must be looking forward to playing a Test in his hometown.
India looks settled on the bowling front as well. Pragyan Ojha was mighty impressive in the Australia series with his flight & control. Harbhajan Singh & Ishant Sharma seem to be feeling their way back to form convincingly enough to keep Sreesanth & Amit Mishra on the bench. Skipper M.S. Dhoni was perhaps the only real failure in the previous series. His batting may not have been missed as much as his keeping, errors that he and his side can ill afford. It would help as well if he wins a toss for a change.
On the face of it, New Zealand appears to be a motley crew, but a discerning eye will recognise the potential of their batting line-up. In Martin Guptill, they have one of their stars of the future. Attractive, free-flowing and importantly, a good player of spin bowling, he will look to set the tone for a dangerous middle order comprising Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder and Brendon McCullum. Each one of the triumvirate providing muscle in the middle knows what it’s like to score a Test century against India, as does the man bringing up the rear – skipper Vettori himself, easily the most consistent of the lot. It is hard to see the much hyped Kane Williamson fitting in, unless McCullum dons the gauntlets ahead of specialist wicket-keeper Gareth Hopkins.
It is in the inexperience of the bowling attack that New Zealand will bleed. Chris Martin and Vettori (that man again!) will spearhead the pace & spin departments. Jeetan Patel will surely play on pitches responsive to his craft, but must know that this may be the toughest assignment of his career so far. Between them, Tim Southee, the nippy Brent Arnel, the left-am quick Andy McKay & the young Hamish Bennett have bowled not a single ball in India. Take away Southee & add Martin to the mix, and you have an uncharacteristically weak tail. They will look to the first test of the 1999 tour for inspiration, when Dion Nash & Shayne O’Connor blew India away for 83 on a seaming pitch at Mohali.
India batted superbly, bowled competently and caught woefully against the Aussies and yet blanked them. That combination may well be enough to shut out New Zealand as well, but they would want to improve. Also, as the No. 1 ranked side, they must win by a margin of at least 2-0. Indian complacency apart, it is hard to see New Zealand winning a Test match on this tour.
INDIA: MS Dhoni (capt), Virender Sehwag (vice-capt), Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina, Cheteshwar Pujara, M Vijay, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma, Sreesanth, Pragyan Ojha, Amit Mishra
NEW ZEALAND: Daniel Vettori (capt), Brent Arnel, Hamish Bennett, Martin Guptill, Gareth Hopkins, Chris Martin, Brendon McCullum, Tim McIntosh, Andy McKay, Jeetan Patel, Jesse Ryder, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, BJ Watling, Kane Williamson
1st Test: India v New Zealand at Ahmedabad
Nov 4-8, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)
2nd Test: India v New Zealand at Hyderabad (Deccan)
Nov 12-16, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)
3rd Test: India v New Zealand at Nagpur
Nov 20-24, 2010 (09:30 local, 04:00 GMT)