Kiwis swoop in for the kill

Dinesh Mongia, who joined the Indian team in New Zealand, at the nets along with Rahul Dravid and Ajit Agarkar. (Right): Mathew Sinclair and Chris Harris discuss some finer points during their training session. — Photos: N. Balaji

Dinesh Mongia, who joined the Indian team in New Zealand, at the nets along with Rahul Dravid and Ajit Agarkar. (Right): Mathew Sinclair and Chris Harris discuss some finer points during their training session. — Photos: N. Balaji  

Queenstown Jan. 3. In this paradise called Queenstown, with its snow-capped mountains, and silvery lakes, one side will be moving in for the kill, the other fighting for survival.

It may appear ironical that in a serene place of such staggering beauty, where nature can be seen in all its splendour and glory, a battle of `life and death' will be on. Welcome to the real, unforgiving world.

The Indians took some time off on Thursday for a helicopter ride to one of those spectacular mountains here, and the view from the peak could have reminded them about one of life's great truths — it's easier to reach the top, you can even fly there, but much, much harder to stay.

Having dished out splendid cricket for most of 2002, the Indians find themselves in a deep hole, in the beginning of 2003. Down 0-3 in the seven-match ODI series, after having been blanked in the Tests, they face a sink or swim situation at the quaint Queenstown Events Centre ground on Saturday.

New Zealand, as skipper Stephen Fleming indicated, would be keen to take a winning lead, only to be expected from a side that having the opportunity to deliver the knock-out blow.

The Queenstown Events Centre ground is a small one, but the pitch, at least on Friday, had plenty of grass. Curator Peter Bomigan said some of it might disappear by Saturday morning, but the surface appeared hard and there should be bounce and carry for the pacemen.

``Even if it is a small ground, we still have to hit them. At the moment, we are only nicking them,'' skipper Sourav Ganguly was spot on for once. But when he said, "We have coped with the movement and bounce in South Africa but the wickets here have been spongy, the ball is not coming on to the bat,'' Ganguly was once again taking the easy way out. Talking of pitches, it's all in the mind really.

Tendulkar unlikely

One of the two batsmen in the side most equipped to deal with the conditions, Sachin Tendulkar, may be missing from action yet again. ``Tendulkar is unlikely to play. He went through a set of routines with Andrew (Leipus) this morning, and said he still felt some pain. He is an important player and we shouldn't put his ankle to the slightest of risks,'' revealed coach John Wright to The Hindu. The maestro, was in a lively mood at the pre-match practice session, said he was feeling better, but it remains to be seen if he would play in his first game of the series.

The left-handed Dinesh Mongia figured in the nets too, and the 17th member of this losing Indian squad might get a match, if the team-management is convinced that he has recovered well enough from the jet lag. If that happens, V.V.S. Laxman could lose out.

Skipper Sourav Ganguly, who said the contract dispute was something to be sorted out between the BCCI and the ICC, hinted at a shift in the batting order for the game, dwelt on the need to change the side's approach since 175 could be a winning score in these conditions, and even if the realisation, has come rather late in the day, at least, it has sunk in now.

However, whatever be the switch in the order, it is hardly going to work unless there is a sea change in the batsmen's levels of commitment and application. International wickets should not come with cheap price tags.

The team-management is also exploring the possibility of fielding four pacemen for the game, while retaining seven batsmen, and this suggests off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who did not send down a single over in Christchurch, could find himself omitted. A final decision would be taken only on Saturday morning.

On the positive side, the much-maligned Ajit Agarkar operated quite superbly at the Jade Stadium, and when he is buzzing, the Mumbai cricketer does add to the side, also as a fine fielder and a useful striker of the ball. What Agarkar should strive for is to bring more consistency into his game.

Chris Harris, a sort of a cult figure in these parts, when it comes to the abbreviated form of the game, is back in the Kiwi side, so are two more handy all-rounders Andre Adams and Scott Styris, and in the case of all the three receiving a look-in, the Kiwi batting will have a lot more depth.

About Harris, Fleming said, "he's got experience, the kind of experience we will cash in on. Daryl Tuffey has performed exceptionally well with the ball,'' the Kiwi skipper observed, and had words of praise for Jacob Oram as well. "We would like to have a finale here at Queenstown,'' Fleming said, and this meant going 4-0 up, putting the series beyond India.

Pitch predictions have gone wrong in this series, as Fleming admitted. The Kiwi captain also stressed on the need to try out different combinations before the World Cup, reflected in the selection of Harris, Styris and Adams.

So, it will all be happening in this paradise called Queenstown — one side moving in for the kill, the other fighting for survival.

The teams: India (from): Sourav Ganguly (captain), Virender Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Yuveraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Sanjay Bangar, Ajit Agarkar, Aashish Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Javagal Srinath, Harbhajan Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rakesh Patel & Parthiv Patel.

New Zealand (from): Stephen Fleming (captain), Nathan Astle, Mathew Sinclair, Craig McMillan, Chris Harris, Andre Adams, Scott Styris, Brenden McCullum, Jacob Oram, Daniel Vettori, Daryl Tuffey, & Kyle Mills.

Umpires: Messrs. Asoka de Silva & Doug Cowie: Third umpire: Mr. Tony Hill. Match Referee: Mr. Ranjan Madugalle. Play starts at 4.40 a.m. (IST).

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