New-look India hope to clip Kiwi wings early

Chance for youngsters to make a mark

Depending upon which side of the fence you are on, you can either term it sheer arrogance or utter disdain, but there was no mistaking the quiet confidence MS Dhoni exuded during his match-eve press do here on Wednesday.

The Indian skipper, in a candid manner, said ‘no’ when asked if he was aware of several new faces in the New Zealand squad that takes on India in the first of the two Test matches here at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium from Thursday.

Agreed, India are coming off an eminently forgettable season so far as Tests are concerned. Their eight Test defeats on the trot in England and Australia have seen them slip to fifth place in the ICC rankings from the top position in the space of just one year while two of their finest Test batsmen – Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman -- have announced their retirements. Their senior most spinner Harbhajan Singh has been out of favour for some time due to poor form while the batting, for the first time in over a decade, appears a bit untested if not undercooked. But given the home conditions and the morale of the visitors, who were pummelled by the West Indies during their recent trip to the Caribbean, India will be expected to make short work of Ross Taylor’s side.

Notwithstanding their form and India’s proven supremacy at home, however, New Zealand have managed to keep the hosts at bay, as is evident by their performances in over two decades. Though they haven’t won a Test against India in India, their eight draws out of 11 since 1990 is mighty impressive. And on occasions, they have even got India’s goat like in Ahmedabad during their last visit in 2010 when they threatened to pull off a victory in the opening Test of the series before Laxman and Harbhajan combined to deny them their moment under the sun. Dhoni did recall Harbhajan’s back-to-back centuries in that rubber, but it would have been nice if he had also mentioned Laxman’s contribution in helping India save the Ahmedabad Test.

Harbhajan was, in fact, the third top run-getter for India in that series but had failed to replicate the effort with the ball, claiming just 10 wickets in three matches. The off-spinner even complained about the pitch here in the drawn second Test which Dhoni indicated wouldn’t have produced a winner even after eight days. While making no bones about his desire to have spinner-friendly surfaces in India, Dhoni hoped the square at Uppal will aid off-spinner R Ashwin and left-arm spinner and local boy Pragyan Ojha while expecting some help for his pacemen Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav due to the generous presence of red-clay content.

The unexpected exit of Laxman has opened the door for both Cheteshwar Pujara, likely to bat at three, and Suresh Raina and along with Virat Kohli, they form an inexperienced middle-order which means Sachin Tendulkar will have the added pressure of shepherding the batting. The lack of experience in the Kiwi attack though should stand the hosts’ young guns in good stead. Unlike India’s two-spinner strategy, New Zealand, in the absence of Daniel Vettori through injury, are mulling three seamers and a spinner. Their most experienced bowler, Chris Martin, will return to lead the attack while young quicks Doug Bracewell and Trent Boult are likely to share the new ball. One of off-spinner Jeetan Patel and leggie Tarun Nethula will fill in the lone spinner’s slot.

With the bowling being a little inexperienced, the Kiwi batting, which has been a bit of an enigma of sorts, has to take shape if they are to push India. West Indies was an unequivocal disaster but it was not for want of talent. With the likes of Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Kane Williamson they are a more capable batting unit than what recent records suggest. Time then for the Black Caps to set some records straight.

Teams (from): India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt, wk), Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Cheteshwar Pujara, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, Ravichandran Ashwin, Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha, Ajinkya Rahane, Subramaniam Badrinath, Piyush Chawla, Ishant Sharma.

New Zealand: Ross Taylor (capt), Daniel Flynn, Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Bradley-John Watling, Kane Williamson, Kruger van Wyk (wk), Neil Wagner, James Franklin, Chris Martin, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell, Tarun Nethula, Tim Southee, Jeetan Patel.

Umpires: Ian Gould (England) and Steve Davis (Australia).

Match referee: Chris Broad (England).

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