Can India outpunch Kiwis?

Zaheer Khan-less Dhonis men look to score series winning victory at Nagpur

Can India outpunch Kiwis?

 Batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar polishes his skills in the dressing room after rain hampered India’s practice session on Friday. AP

New Zealand arrived in Indian shores three weeks back, a side seemingly in disarray after their disastrous 4-0 drubbing in a one-day series in Bangladesh. There was talk of discontent within the ranks, of Daniel Vettori threatening to relinquish captaincy duties, of coach Mark Greatbatch questioning the skills and commitment of several key batsmen.

If there is one thing the Kiwis are adept at, it’s at consistently punching above their weight. The disappointment of Bangladesh and the unprecedented criticism back home brought the unit together and instilled in the team a steel and discipline that has allowed them to compete with India in their own backyard on even terms.

Two straight draws have given New Zealand a glorious opening to step in and deliver a stunning knockout blow on an outfit that last lost a home series in 2004. That defeat came at the hands of Australia, the series settled at this same City of Oranges, even if at a different venue.

There is very little to suggest that the VCA stadium in Jamtha, where the third Test begins on Saturday, will be as hostile towards a Zaheer Khan-less India as the old venue bearing the same name was in October 2004. BCCI politics took an ugly turn then as a green carpet greeted Sourav Ganguly for the third Test, which the teams went into with India trailing 0-1. Ganguly pulled out on match eve citing injury, and India were blown away by Adam Gilchrist’s all-powerful band.

Dhoni won’t have such non-cricketing pressures to contend with, but that won’t necessarily make his task any easier on the most Indian of pitches – largely bare and fairly dry – on offer this series.

The momentum is with New Zealand, for even in a stalemate, they have emerged with heads held higher. The confidence permeating through their ranks is hard to miss, coupled now with a genuine excitement at the knowledge that an unlikely coup isn’t in the realms of the impossible.

Not for nothing, however, do India possess a fantastic home record. Their recent away form isn’t unimpressive, but at home, India play with a flair, an aggression and a purpose that always makes them remarkably dangerous.

India haven’t taken kindly to being stretched and hustled and pressurised by the Kiwis. There is little evidence on the surface that the team is nettled, but the pride they take in excelling in their bastion has been pricked in the last fortnight. They recognise that they have been defeated by the elements as much as anything else, but that is little consolation for a team that rose to the number one Test ranking last December, and has since maintained its reign with typical panache.

Denied full practice for a second straight day because of a heavy downpour, the Indians would have welcomed the forced break, considering their demanding schedule of the last few months. It will also have given the brains trust additional time to re-assess tactics in the enforced absence of India’s most incisive bowler of the last two years.

That Zaheer will be sorely missed is stating the obvious; his great penetration with the new ball and his ability to exploit slightest reverse-swinging have put him in a rarefied league. Without him, India will find it demanding to halt a Kiwi batting line-up ticking over like a well-oiled machine; there is no better time for Harbhajan Singh to re-establish himself as a consistent, formidable strike force. With the ball, that is. The experienced off-spinner has been outbowled by Vettori in this series, his repeated criticisms of the Ahmedabad and Hyderabad pitches not winning him too many friends.

Centuries in successive innings at number eight is fine, but Harbhajan’s primary task is taking wickets. Hopefully, Jamtha will trigger a turnaround.

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