India will start as firm favourite

S. Dinakar
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CRICKET / The Test holds interesting possibilities if Kiwis can combine as a unit

LIMBERING UP: Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra and Virender Sehwag warm up for the practice session on the eve of the first Test with a spot of football. — Photo: K.R. Deepak
LIMBERING UP: Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Amit Mishra and Virender Sehwag warm up for the practice session on the eve of the first Test with a spot of football. — Photo: K.R. Deepak

India starts the three-Test series against New Zealand as the overwhelming favourite. But then, cricket can throw up surprises.

The first Test beginning at Motera here on Thursday holds interesting possibilities if the Kiwis can combine as a unit.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men enter the contest following a stirring 2-0 Test series triumph over Australia at home.

The Kiwis, in contrast, faced an inquest after going down 4-0 to host Bangladesh in a disastrous ODI series. Coach Mark Greatbatch's words of anger reflected the nation's mood following New Zealand's capitulation.

History beckons

The series opener provides an opportunity for maestro Sachin Tendulkar to raise the bar further with an unprecedented 50th Test century.

New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori will be walking out in his 100th Test for New Zealand. An outstanding left-arm spinner, a battling southpaw with the willow and an inspirational leader, Vettori means much to this New Zealand side.

The pitch for the Test appears dry with patches of brown grass.

The side winning the toss will be seeking to bat, survive the first two hours with minimal loss and pile up a huge first innings total.

Curator Dhiraj Parsana has provided very different tracks for the last two Tests here. South African pace spearhead Dale Steyn grabbed five for 23 on day one as India was bundled out for 76 on a green seaming track in 2008. There were no comebacks for India in that Test.

Then, in 2009, on a surface that could have lasted an eternity, India recovered from a stuttering start to reach 426. Sri Lanka replied with a mammoth 760 for seven declared. A draw was the only result possible on that wicket.

Parsana insists the pitch for the forthcoming Test would be a sporting one.

Selection issues

India has a couple of selection issues to resolve. Opener Murali Vijay's solid, well-constructed 139 and the impressive Cheteshwar Pujara's strokeful second innings 72 were among the key factors in India's seven-wicket victory over Australia in the second Test in Bangalore.

Vijay and Pujara had come in for the injured Gautam Gambhir and V.V.S. Laxman.

However, Gambhir and Laxman seem to have put fitness issues behind and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni strongly indicated that the two senior batsmen would return to their Test places.

It is not often that a top-order batsman misses out after making a hundred against Australia and Vijay should consider himself desperately unlucky.

While in-form game-clincher Laxman was always expected to take back his place in the middle-order, opener Gambhir has been short of runs. The southpaw needs to pull his weight in the side.

Rahul Dravid too has been searching for form but Motera should bring back happy memories for this seasoned campaigner.

In India's last Test here, Dravid's fire-fighting innings of 177 enabled the home side recover after the Sri Lankan pacemen had made serious inroads in the first session.

Attack lacks fire-power

The Kiwi attack will rely much on experienced paceman Chris Martin and the crafty Vettori to dent the formidable Indian line-up.

The attack, however, appears to lack the depth or the firepower to stretch the host.

New Zealand has a few capable batsmen in Martin Guptill, Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum and Vettori. And Kane Williamson is an exciting new prospect. Yet, this is a line-up that has lacked consistency.

Much hinges on the explosive McCullum and the nimble-footed Taylor.

Ishant unlikely

Zaheer Khan and S. Sreessanth are likely to share the new ball for India; the team-management is unlikely to rush Ishant Sharma who is returning from a knee injury. Harbhajan Singh and left-armer Pragyan Ojha form the spin duo.

Harbhajan has not quite been a destroyer for a considerable period of time.

The teams (from): India: M.S. Dhoni (captain), V. Sehwag, G. Gambhir, R. Dravid, S. Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, S. Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, P. Ojha, S. Sreesanth, I. Sharma, M. Vijay, C. Pujara, A. Mishra.

New Zealand: D. Vettori (captain), M. Guptill, T. McIntosh, B. McCullum, J. Ryder, R. Taylor, K. Williamson, G. Hopkins, T. Southee, C. Martin, J. Patel, B. Arnel, H. Bennett, A. McKay, B.J. Watling .

Match starts at 9.30 a.m.

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