The Indian team is physically and mentally ready for the long season ahead said MS Dhoni the other day at a promotional event. Which is just as well for it is really going to be a long and arduous season even if most of the engagements are at home. The start has been promising enough with the rather emphatic 4-1 victory in the ODI series in Sri Lanka followed by a win in the only Twenty20 international.
But then these are very early days. Only the best teams have been able to be in top form over an extended period and the Indian team is not exactly up there with England or South Africa. About a year ago they were No 1 in the Test rankings, now they are fifth.
The situation is not much better in limited overs cricket with India ranked No 3 in ODIs and fourth in Twenty20. Obviously a lot of hard work needs to be done if the Indian team wants to climb back to the pedestal but the competition is stiff. Just watching England and South Africa battle it out for the top spot underlines this.
The tag of being World Cup champions is fine but India is clearly not the best team around in ODIs. As far as T20 is concerned one gets the feeling that notwithstanding the Indian team’s triumph in the inaugural World Cup in South Africa five years ago, interest in cricket’s newest and shortest format is mainly restricted to events in the IPL.
Fortunately most of the tough competition is well into the season. India’s first opposition is at home and against New Zealand who have never won a Test series in this country in contests going back to 1955. Their best has been drawing a three-Test series in 1969 and a two-Test series in 2003.
These facts alone are enough to indicate that the visitors have a tough task ahead though one hopes that the home team will not be smug about the record being so much in their favour. The important thing is to keep winning and keep winning handsomely till it becomes a habit. The great teams have always done this. The Indians have home advantage and as everyone knows they are pretty hard to beat in their own backyard.
In the last decade only one team – Australia in 2004 – has emerged triumphant in a Test series in India. The Indians should just shrug off memories of their 0-8 rout in England and Australia and start anew. They will also be encouraged by the fact that in between the two disasters they got the better of the West Indies at home.
Of course the most encouraging aspect as I said is that they are up against opponents who have never won a Test series in this country and if anything the composition of the Kiwi squad should give the Indians increasing cause for comfort.
What could even make them over confident is the fact that New Zealand come over having just lost both the matches in the Test series in the West Indies and are currently ranked No 8 in Tests, No 8 in ODIs and No 7 in T20 internationals. The tourists have some names who just about measure up to world class in skipper Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Chris Martin, James Franklin and Martin Guptill.
But they have been weakened by the last minute withdrawal of Daniel Vettori who is nursing an injury. On the other hand they have a couple of young players who are considered talented enough to make good. In this connection one remembers Kane Williamson who is a member of the current squad getting a hundred on Test debut against India at Ahmedabad two years ago.
However all things considered the Indians would seem to be overwhelming superior even if they are going through a transitional phase. It will be a new experience with Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman missing from the line-up but even in their absence the batting is strong and should be able to pile up runs against an innocuous Kiwi attack.
There is much speculation about their replacements for at the moment there appear to be a number of candidates. All of them are worthy contenders and I am sure the duo that is picked will rise to the occasion. The bowling is another matter but then again at home the Indians somehow manage to rise to the occasion and even on tracks that are generally docile they are able to bowl sides out.
One recalls that even in the last series against New Zealand here in 2010 the bowlers had to perform on batting beauties and yet India ultimately clinched the three-match contest 1-0.
More important than the result against New Zealand would be the manner the Indian team shapes up for their showing could be an indicator as to how they are likely to perform later during the packed schedule.
There will be special focus on the senior players to see whether they are still good enough to hold their places on merit and not merely on reputation while as much attention will be given to the younger cricketers to gauge whether they can measure up to the highest international standards and are ready to take over on a regular basis should the seniors fail.
To that extent the two-Test India – New Zealand contest which commences at Hyderabad on Thursday will generate much more interest than it would normally have.