Perfect assignment

Skipper M. S. Dhoni with the Chairman of the Selection Committee K. Srikkanth and other selectors after the Indian team for the New Zealand tour was announced.-S. R. RAGHUNATHAN

India has moved on from the phase when it challenged merely for the odd Test victory abroad; thanks to the efforts of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, its three most recent leaders, it now embarks on tours confident of winning series, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Over the next six weeks, India has the opportunity to alter slightly a mournful record in New Zealand. The beautiful island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean may rake in tourist dollars by the billion, but generations of Indian cricketers who have visited in the last four decades haven’t quite enjoyed the setting. After winning four of its first five Tests in New Zealand — including three of four under M. A. K. Pataudi in 1968, which resulted in India&# 8217;s first-ever series win abroad — India has gone 33 years and 13 Tests without a win. To put the barren period in context, consider the fact that India has, in this time, registered Test victories in every other country, and series wins in all nations save Australia and South Africa. India hasn’t fared any better in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) either. It has never won a bilateral series in New Zealand. Indeed the first ODI it did win in a bilateral series was in Auckland in 1994, when Navjot Singh Sidhu woke up with a stiff neck — a disorder that ranks among the most significant incidents in Indian cricket — and Sachin Tendulkar, promoted to open, blitzed a 49-ball 82. In all, India has managed victory in only six of 20 bilateral ODIs in New Zealand.

India’s sorry past in New Zealand frames the tour nicely. For a nation that rightfully claims to possess the best Twenty20 combination in the world and harbours reasonable ambitions of the top spot in ODIs and Tests as well, this is the perfect assignment. India has moved on from the phase when it challenged merely for the odd Test victory abroad; thanks to the efforts of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, its three most recent leaders, it now embarks on tours confident of winning series. Moreover, the tour, which comprises two Twenty20 Internationals, five ODIs, and three Tests, offers validation in all three formats. “It is a fairly new team and the challenge is definitely there,” said Sachin Tendulkar, striking a note of caution. “Playing in New Zealand, where the conditions are going to be tough, is a completely different experience.”

The conditions in New Zealand are unlike any found around the world in these days of homogenisation. The playing strips at most grounds are soft and damp, and allow the ball to deviate off the seam. Although cut is the most potent weapon on New Zealand pitches, swing bowlers have found assistance from the water-laden atmosphere and the wind. “In places like Wellington, from one end a bowler comes at 135kph with the breeze behind him and then suddenly you are facing someone else who is very slow and there is no wind,” said Tendulkar, illustrating the other difficulties batsmen are confronted with. “With the wind behind the bowler it affects the batsman as he can’t keep his eyes open for long. So it becomes tough as one needs to change the bat swing, the balance and the rest.”

There’s a view that the wickets will have lost some of their devil, this being the last phase of New Zealand’s domestic season, but they will still need getting used to. The cramped schedule has left no room for any sort of practice match — although the cricketers have said in public that being a professional involves adapting on the fly, some have, in private, admitted it’s easier said than done. Of the touring party, the batsmen will need to make the most adjustments. There’s a reason New Zealand hasn’t produced many stroke-makers. And there’s a reason Test averages in the country hover between 30 and 40. By their very nature, the conditions require batsmen to perform the cumbersome task of playing on the front foot and committing very late. The avenues for the production of explosive bat speed are thus curtailed. Besides, the wicket-taking ball is ever around the corner.

Sachin Tendulkar feels that playing in New Zealand, where the conditions are going to be tough, is a completely different experience. The star batsman has opted out of the T20 matches during the tour and will be replaced by Ravindra Jadeja.-K.PICHUMANI

This will be a vital tour for Dravid, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh. Dravid is one of the few international batsmen to have exhibited complete command over conditions in New Zealand. The centuries (190 and 103 not out) in Hamilton in 1999 were exceptional in their construction, but the 76 made against Shane Bond at the Basin Reserve in 2002 ranks with the twin half-centuries on a vile wicket in Jamaica and the 148 in Headingley as one of the best knocks in adversity. Dravid is in a different place in his career now. He has nothing to prove, although a form slump (rectified somewhat by a century against England late last year) has raised the odd question. Contributing heavily to a series win in New Zealand will complete Dravid’s legend as India’s finest batsman abroad, seen in the context of defining innings.

For Gambhir, on his first major tour as first-choice, and Yuvraj, who appears to be growing into his role at No. 6, the tour is the chance to test themselves against the moving ball, and prove, to themselves, and the world, that their exorbitant talents aren’t confined to expression on sub-continental tracks. Both men have made runs outside India in ODIs. But nothing confirms a batsman has arrived as surely as Test runs made abroad when the balance of power is with the bowlers. India is carrying a seamer-heavy bowling attack and much will rest on the lead pair, Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. The conditions should suit Zaheer, who registered his first Test five-wicket haul in New Zealand, in 2002.

The left-armer has evolved into one of the best new-ball practitioners in world cricket, showing he can shoulder the responsibility of leading the attack to victory abroad. Ishant has progressed rapidly. His height, pace and cut ensure he’ll be a threat whatever the conditions, but his control while working on a batsman sets him apart.

Hopefully Munaf Patel won’t break down. At his best, he’s a marvellous third seamer, with pace in reserve. But he needs to stay on the park, not press ice bags to injured areas in the comfort of the dressing room.

Unsurprisingly, considering the sticky wickets, finger-spinners have found success in New Zealand. Prasanna, Bedi and Nadkarni were key figures in the series win in 1968. Harbhajan Singh, on his first tour after Anil Kumble’s retirement, will need to step his game up. Figuring out the right speed to bowl on New Zealand’s strips will be vital.

New Zealand has the makings of an exciting side. Teams from here are often given the short shrift, dismissed as bland, earnest workmen making the most of their limited talent. But Daniel Vettori commandeers a young side that has the potential to become something special. Although New Zealand appears a quality seamer short, the batting group of Ross Taylor, Jesse Ryder, Daniel Flynn, Martin Guptill, Grant Elliott, and Brendon McCullum (when he’s not expertly keeping wicket) contains interesting, diverse talent. This mightn’t be a Test series for the ages — the scale somehow doesn’t seem right — but it promises to be worth waking up for.

THE ITINERARY

February 25: 1st T20I (D/N), AMI Stadium, Christchurch

February 27: 2nd T20I (D/N), Westpac Stadium, Wellington

March 3: 1st ODI (D/N), McLean Park, Napier

March 6: 2nd ODI (D/N), Westpac Stadium, Wellington

March 8: 3rd ODI (D/N), AMI Stadium, Christchurch

March 11: 4th ODI (D/N), Seddon Park, Hamilton

March 14: 5th ODI (D/N), Eden Park, Auckland March 18-22: 1st Test, Seddon Park, Hamilton March 26-30: 2nd Test, McLean Park, Napier

April 3-7: 3rd Test, Basin Reserve, Wellington

THE TEAM FOR TESTS M. S. Dhoni (captain) V. Sehwag (vice-captain) G. Gambhir R. Dravid S. Tendulkar V. V. S. Laxman Yuvraj Singh M. Vijay Dinesh Karthik Harbhajan Singh A. Mishra Zaheer Khan Ishant Sharma Munaf Patel L. Balaji Dhawal Kulkarni -------------------------------- FOR ODIs M. S. Dhoni (captain) V. Sehwag (vice-captain) G. Gambhir S. Tendulkar Yuvraj Singh S. Raina Dinesh Karthik Yusuf Pathan Harbhajan Singh Zaheer Khan Ishant Sharma Munaf Patel Irfan Pathan P. Ojha Rohit Sharma Praveen Kumar

** Ravindra Jadeja will replace Tendulkar for the T20 matches.