Quest for top spot begins today

Quest for top spot begins today

Dhonis men begin tri-series campaign against Kiwis with added incentive

Notwithstanding India’s fine run in the shorter format in the last year or so, the task, however, isn’t all that simple. Coming off a lengthy break, it will be a big challenge for Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men to hit their straps straightaway when on Friday they take on New Zealand at the Premadasa stadium.

It must be remembered that it’s been a while since India finished on top in a multi-nation event. Their all-win record in the last six bilateral one-day series is hugely impressive, two of those triumphs coming in Sri Lanka. But the Indians seem to struggle in a tournament involving more than two teams.

India’s victory in a tri-series was when Dhoni and company thumped Australia 2-0 in the finals in 2007-08. Since then, they lost the finals of a tri-series in Bangladesh in June 2008 and the Asia Cup in Pakistan the same month, both defeats coming against Pakistan. They surrendered their World T20 title this June.

Against this backdrop, India will be approaching their tri-series campaign with a touch of trepidation. It’s not just their recent poor run in multi-nation tournaments that they will have to worry about. The Indians received a crippling blow when opening batsman Gautam Gambhir was ruled out of the competition with a groin injury picked up during the BCCI Corporate Trophy.

The left-hander, who spent very little time in the nets on Wednesday, further aggravated the injury, forcing a replacement in Virat Kohli. Already without Virender Sehwag, recuperating from shoulder surgery, India could have done without the latest setback. Dhoni, however, made it clear that Kohli would not feature in the final XI. Dinesh Kaarthick, who did reasonably well during the West Indies series, will be the beneficiary and will link up with Sachin Tendulkar at the top of the order.

Rahul Dravid, whose return to the one-dayers is being followed keenly, is more or less assured to walk in at number three. The Bangalorean, who last appeared in a one-day international in 2007 against Australia, has been in good nick, his two half-centuries in the Corporate Trophy bearing testimony. In the absence of two experienced players in Sehwag and Gambhir, Dravid’s presence in the side couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Dhoni and Yusuf Pathan to follow, the batting has a cloak of solidity.

Ashish Nehra has done his cause no harm at all since his return to international cricket in the Caribbean. The left-arm seamer isn’t an automatic choice, and will square off against Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma and RP Singh for three pace-bowling slots in the playing eleven. Offie Harbhajan Singh will fill the lone spinner’s spot while part-timers Yuvraj and Raina, along with Yusuf, will have to don the role of the fifth bowler.

New Zealand’s none-too-impressive show so far here, coupled with India’s stranglehold over the Kiwis and their mastery of Lankan conditions in the last two series, should hold Dhoni’s team in good stead. While their bowling department -- bolstered by the return of Shane Bond and Daryl Tuffey – has done its part, an unconvincing top-order batting and a shaky middle has been the bane of Kiwis, facing a must-win situation.

Daniel Vettori’s men took a day off from practice on Thursday. It remains to be seen if the extended rest will rejuvenate the side.

Teams (from): India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Sachin Tendulkar, Dinesh Kaarthick, Rahul Dravid, Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, Ashish Nehra, RP Singh, Amit Mishra, Virat Kohli, Abhishek Nayar.
New Zealand: Daniel Vettori (capt), Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder, Martin Guptill, Ross Taylor, Grant Elliott, Jacob Oram, Nathan McCullum, Ian Butler, Daryl Tuffey, Shane Bond, Neil Broom, Gareth Hopkins, Brendon Diamanti, Jeetan Patel.     
Umpires: Billy Doctrove (West Indies) and Kumar Dharmasena.
Third umpire: Gamini Silva.
Match referee: Chris Broad (England).