Such are the times that India get into the ODI series in New Zealand without the benefit of even a single warm-up or side game and that could well see the visitors struggling in conditions that historically supported seam and swing, not the staple diet of our batsmen!
For all that, Dhoni’s men wouldn’t mind a bit as the one-day games provide them a sneak peek into conditions that they will encounter at the World Cup next year. Looking at the squad, there are indications that the core team for the 2015 bash has almost been identified and the forthcoming games will provide an opportunity to judge the fringe players.
In that context, the tour of New Zealand carries a great deal of relevance and significance, though without the benefit of a practice game, the Indians might be on the back foot, at least in the early part of the series.
The conditions, for sure, would be vastly different from the one the Indians had encountered in South Africa just a few weeks ago, though they can expect much swing and movement off the pitch, factors that are usually associated with New Zealand. If anything, the technique and temperament of Indian batsmen will again be put to test, although there is no Steyn or Morkel to intimidate them.
Remember the series of a decade ago when India lost both the ODI and Test series, barely able to make 200 in an innings? Only Zaheer Khan from the present lot is the survivor from that wretched tour that was scheduled just before the ill-fated World Cup in the Caribbean. Khan, at 35, is not part of the one-day squad, and I doubt if he will make it to next year’s World Cup.
The scenario in Kiwiland is such that the world rankings will count for nothing. India, at No.1, are the obvious favourites for the one-day series, while the Kiwis, at No.8, may not be expected to offer much of a challenge, given their dismal home record in the past couple of seasons.
Having said that, the differentiating factor could still be the bowling where the Indians have struggled, especially at the death where they have leaked far too many runs. The Indian bowlers have also to adjust their length and be prepared to bend their backs as Dhoni has repeatedly pointed out.
As for India’s batting, the focus could well be on the No.4 spot that has several contenders, chief among whom is Raina, who has always enjoyed a solid backing from Dhoni.
The skipper has never held back in saying that a talent like Raina needed to be given a long run, though it is debatable how long is long. Rohit Sharma, for instance, was persisted with despite repeated failures until he was thrust to the opener’s slot and the transformation was quite extraordinary.
With Rohit and Shikhar opening, followed by Kohli, it remains to be seen whether Raina will be persisted at No.4 or Dhoni would be tempted to shuffle between the southpaw, Rayudu and Rahane or even Binny who is on his first tour with the national team. Much would depend on how Raina fares in the opening two fixtures and should he fail, then it is likely that Dhoni would try other contenders.
I would rather that Raina goes in at No.4, followed by Rahane and Dhoni. Depending on the bowling composition, there could be place for one more batsman/all-rounder like Binny at No.7, with four specialist bowlers to follow.
We can discuss this point till the cows come home, but eventually, Dhoni would need to take the call and given his penchant for “out of the box” experiments, we can yet be up for a surprise or two.
Whatever, the Indians will be up for another acid test beginning this weekend when the ODI series commences. The Kiwis have been making some noise about having green tops and a bit of express pace, but it is one thing to talk and quite another to execute.
It will surprise none though should India take the series with something to spare unless they look the gift horse in the mouth like they have done in the past!