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By Chetan Narula
Auckland: Feb 5, 2014
Thoroughly embarrassed in the One Day International (ODI) series, India would aim for a turnaround in fortunes when they take on a sprightly and confident New Zealand in the opening match of a two-Test series starting on February 6.
The Indians were blanked out 0-4 in the five-game ODI series resulting in the team losing its number one status in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings.
The visitors thereafter played a two-day warm-up game ahead of the Tests which ended in a draw and gave them mixed results as far as individual form of the players was concerned.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men now need at least a drawn series, if not an outright win, to retain their number two ranking in Test cricket.
With the exception of Pragyan Ojha (Ishwar Pandey replacing him), this is the same Test squad that lost 1-0 in South Africa before this tour.
And after the departure of Sachin Tendulkar, with Indian cricket turning over a new page, that was a respectable result in more ways than one. India’s young batsmen, untested abroad in the longer format, held their own for nine days before losing on the final day of the two-Test series.
The bowlers, led by the experienced Zaheer Khan, too put in a noteworthy performance, very nearly scaring the Proteas into defeat in the first Test at Johannesburg.
That tour made for a fine marker to carry on from, except the ODI losses thereafter may have undone some of the good work.
This is partly because, barring Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, the Indian batting line-up bears the same look in both formats.
And that is worrisome because only Virat Kohli and skipper Dhoni have scored any runs recently. Rohit Sharma has failed to convert his starts into anything substantial, while Ajinkya Rahane has struggled to find his footing in New Zealand conditions.
While the former has immense backing from the team management, the latter had a good showing in the African Tests to draw confidence from.
As always though, India’s problems begin at the top of the order, wherein Shikhar Dhawan has looked ill at ease ever since he left home.
While most batsmen alter their styles to suit different formats, Dhawan’s aggressive shot-making means that the ‘brand of cricket’ he plays stays the same across all formats.
In that light, his 169 runs in 10 innings since December 2013 stand out. In Africa, where he was targeted by short bowling in both ODIs and Tests, he had scores of 13, 15, 29 and 19. That trend carried over to the ODIs here in New Zealand and will certainly flow over to the Tests as well.
There is some respite to be found in Vijay’s attitude at the other end, as he has looked to leave the ball a lot, waiting for the bad deliveries to score.
If at all there is a problem herein, it is to do with his inability to rotate the strike in the middle of a good spell from the opposition, something that he can very well work on.
Even so, it leaves the run-scoring responsibility mainly to Kohli and Pujara, who will form the backbone of this batting line-up once again.
Kohli’s runs in the preceding ODIs have already placed him on a high pedestal, and it is Pujara who is now the cynosure of all eyes in the build-up to this encounter.
New Zealand know they have double trouble in store for them, considering what this pairing achieved in South Africa against the likes of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
If he gets a lot of runs again then questions will certainly be asked about how long Pujara’s solidity can be kept away from the Indian ODI line-up, given that the selection for the Asia Cup will take place sometime during this Test series.
As stated, the number five and six batsmen are on a wobbly stage, especially Rohit. He didn’t look to work hard in South Africa and his lazy approach in the ODIs here too cost him many runs as well as the team wickets at crucial stages.
In turn, this puts more pressure on Rahane, who will feel the need to once again make his presence felt after a disappointing ODI run, despite wonderful outings in Africa which already seem a long way off.
The bowling combination from the Durban Test is set to be retained. Zaheer didn’t go all out in the tour-game at Whangarei but looks as fit as he did in Africa, raring to lead the young bowling once again.
Despite the green tinge then, Black Caps’ skipper Brendon McCullum hinted that Indian-born Ish Sodhi will be included in their playing eleven.
Like Imran Tahir in the African series, he will have target painted on his back by the Indian batsmen, especially if Tim Southee and Trent Boult get going with their tactics of mixing clever swing with short-pitched bowling.
Expectant-father Ross Taylor is a shoe-in to play and resume his combination with Kane Williamson. Once again then, wickets in the middle order will hold the key for India as they look to make a fresh start on pretty disappointing tour so far.
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