India have some unfinished business to look at

EVERY four years we pay homage to the World Cup and each time it returns hungrier than before; especially in India where we sometimes live on the edge of reason and often make the journey beyond. It is a wonderful event though you sometimes wonder, as it expands, whether it is giving asylum to too many. One thing it should never do though is to devour Test cricket and I fear that might just happen with India's tour of New Zealand.

India play two Tests there before the World Cup side arrives to play seven one-day games. Those will be watched very closely for by early January form will have started to arrive for some and depart worryingly for others. But before the whites are put aside for almost ten months India have some unfinished business to look at.

Towards the end of March John Wright had said that India could realistically look at three away series wins and he wasn't wrong. The West Indies were in poor shape and India made them look far better than they really were. England were somewhat resurgent but temperamentally very fragile and India's batsmen had a lot of experience of playing there. But India's performance oscillated between the inspired and the reckless. With two of those away series wins consigned away, more at the altar of belief than due to shortage of ability, India have one more opportunity.

Away from home India play worryingly, often like our Prime Minister, they show long pauses in performance. In recent times there have been Test wins at Bulawayo, Kandy, Port of Spain and Leeds. Over a fourteen-month period that would not have been considered bad had it not been accompanied by defeats each time.

Particularly depressing were the performances at Harare and Kingston, just two out of many weeks where India seemed lacklustre.

Abroad India seem to play like they carry a burden on their shoulders. Away from the heat, the buzzing crowds and most important, from crumbling pitches, their cupboard of tricks seems bare. The world now believes that the cupboard never gets a visa to leave the country. They could be right.

The one statistic that is thrown at India everywhere they go, and it is an appalling statistic, is that they haven't won outside the sub-continent since 1986.

They need to break that jinx once and I would like to believe this tour of New Zealand is a great opportunity to do that. Indeed, a strong performance in the Tests, ideally a series win, could well be the inspiration India need to play at the World Cup. Those words sound good but they have been written before.

For that to happen though India must take twenty wickets and without a surface to help them, it seems a daunting task. On a couple of occasions, especially at Port of Spain, India's bowlers have stuck to the task, setting a plan and asking the opposition batsmen to take their way out of it. But largely, India's seem to drop their shoulders in the field a little too quickly. 450 overs is a very long time in cricket.

So who is going to take the twenty wickets in New Zealand? Zaheer Khan has looked strong and has turned in some very good spells in recent times but he must be one of three. Ashish Nehra is probably better bowling in the Tests than in the one-dayers but his record grows increasingly humble. He needs to feel at home in international cricket but cannot produce the performances that will allow him to feel that comfort. Ever so often the pace drops a couple of yards and for a man who can touch 140 kmph, he bowls 8 or 9 kmph under that a little too often. He was a disappointment in England but should like bowling in New Zealand where the conditions will suit him.

Like him, Ajit Agarkar dances on the edge of your optimism, a step forward rarely accompanied by another. He needs to be handled by a mixture of care and authority. Despatching him to play for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy was a fine lesson for he has rarely performed with the ball for them. It also provided him an awareness of the tenuous hold he has on his place in the national side. Spurred by the challenge he performed brilliantly and maybe that should be the story of our cricket.

That is also why I think India are doing Tinu Yohannan a bad turn by picking him on tours where he does not play enough matches. Carrying sweaters and towels by the boundary ropes rarely did anyone's confidence any good. Yohannan needs to play cricket, discover himself better and come through a few challenges. In cricketing terms it has been a soft life so far and a season as the leader of his team's attack in the Ranji Trophy would have been perfect for him. Already, he had produced a matchwinning performance and that should have been followed by a few more. Instead he is on another tour, one that will reward him financially but may take him back a couple of steps again.

That is also why I think Ajay Ratra and Shiv Sunder Das might have benefitted from a solid season in first class cricket. In a two Test series, if you are a fringe player, you have few opportunities, maybe none at all. I won't be surprised if they return without playing a game. They need time in the middle rather than in an aircraft.

The World Cup may have filled our minds but a series win in New Zealand is more critical to Indian cricket in the immediate short-term. Since the core is the same, it might just be the shot in the arm the team needs, the little tonic they need to propel them further. But for that to happen, in their minds, they must believe they can win. The journey in the mind is often a longer one to navigate.