Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Challenge in Kiwiland !!

I return to my blog after a gap of nearly two months. Not much has happened for Team India in the interim. The cancellation of the Pakistan tour opened up a gap in the calendar which was promptly filled in by the 10-day trip to Sri Lanka (and it was really heartening to see an additional test scheduled in New Zealand rather than a couple of extra one-dayers !!). To their credit, the Men in Blue played really well. The batting looked in great shape, the bowling was sharp and incisive (Ojha is proving to be a capable backup in the ODIs) and MS Dhoni seems to be more in control of things with each passing day. Off the field also, the past couple of months have been relatively quiet, except for the IPL gathering momentum with the second auction.

Now, Team India finds itself deep in the Southern Hemisphere in a land that not many of them have experienced, let alone played cricket in. The battle against New Zealand (that starts in just over a couple of hours) carries more significance than a normal series. This will be a good test of a largely inexperienced Indian side as they progress in their quest to being the top team in the world in all forms of the game. And while they have improved their overseas showing with each tour (to the point that they are actually being termed favourites to clinch this series), New Zealand presents completely different challenges and is one place the Indians have traditionally struggled to make an impact . Part of the problem, of course, is that these two teams do not meet each other with the same frequency as say India-Australia or India-Sri Lanka. The last time we visited there led to an experience we would rather forget. And while we are unlikely to encounter the same conditions now (Mark Richardson notes wryly in his column on Cricinfo that the NZ Board is now aware of who feeds it ;), playing and winning in New Zealand still remains a challenge. Cold and windy conditions, small but irregular grounds and of course, lack of match practice all pose significant hurdles. And while the hosts do not boast of any bonafide superstar in their ranks (they traditionally have never), the team consists of a set of more than competent individuals, led by an intelligent and stable captain in Daniel Vettori. And like most teams, they are a different kettle of fish on home soil. So the Indians would be tested, more so in the test matches where the likes of Yuvraj (provided he gets a middle order berth) and Gambhir will have to be at their best to counter the moving ball and the cold conditions. The others, of course, are more experienced but with Dravid and Laxman not having the best of times lately, batting might still turn out as India's weak link. A lot will depend, as usual, on Sehwag and Sachin. The bowling of course looks fit and raring to go. Zaheer and Ishant have formed a potent opening attack and Balaji, Munaf and newcomer Dhawal Kulkarni capable of providing more than adequate backup (though I would have liked to see someone like Sreesanth or RP Singh in the team).

But before the test matches are the T20 and ODIs (which is a good thing for the Indians). There the variability is much less and thus the Men in Blue should prevail over the Kiwis. All in all though, it promises to be an exciting series and if the Indians can emerge on top, they would not only have conquered their 'last frontier' but also can lay claim, unquestionably, of being one of the top two sides in the world.