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Who will deliver the killer punch on Boxing Day?

READY FOR AN ENCORE: After sending the Indians to a humiliating 2-0 defeat in the Test series, Shane Bond (left) and Daryl Tuffey are all fired up for the seven-match one-day series which begins in Auckland on Thursday. (Right): Mohd. Kaif (left) and Yuvraj Singh, who lend aggression and athleticism to the Indian side, will be eager to prove their worth again. — Photos: N. Balaji  

Auckland Dec. 25. The seven steps before the World Cup. Will they prove slippery against a side that is known to be a tenacious adversary?

Yes, in the seven-match one-day international series, New Zealand will be tough to beat, especially at home. A side without big names, but efficient nevertheless.

The Indians have been buzzing in this format too — save the reverse in the series decider against the West Indies in Vijayawada — blending well as a resilient bunch, that has bounced back from impossible situations.

The past few days have been less memorable for the Indians though, but with the World Cup around the corner, they have to recapture the magic of the NatWest Trophy final, and the ICC Champions Trophy, as a side that bucks the odds.

Sparks could well fly during the day-night contest at the Eden Park on Thursday, the Boxing Day.

India will be without master batsman Sachin Tendulkar, ruled out of the game because of a right ankle sprain. Tendulkar was bowling at the nets on Wednesday where his ankle got caught in a small hole near the bowling run up.

"It was the last ball of the nets. He has sprained the natural ligaments of his ankle. It's quite swollen at the moment, but he's walking around, and that's a positive sign.

"He has put up his foot up on the bed, icing it every couple of hours, and that's all we can do for the next couple of days. He should be missing the first game. We will try and get him ready for the next ones,'' said physio Andrew Leipus.

Tendulkar, ironically, sat out of the entire home ODI series against the West Indies with a pulled hamstring.

Leipus suggested that discretion would be the better part of valour, while treating the ace batsman.

"At the moment we are just preventing it from getting worse. Treatment will be pretty intense obviously. We are keeping our fingers crossed. We could rest him from the next game as well. Let's wait and see. He has got seven ODIs and then the World Cup. It's better to take the conservative approach now than have him struggling with a chronic swollen ankle in the next couple of months.''

Bangar also doubtful

And allrounder Sanjay Bangar, who made such an impression in the home ODIs, staying alive at the Death, is a doubtful starter as well, having injured a knee ligament while attempting to catch Lou Vincent at short-leg in the Hamilton Test.

With the Baroda paceman Rakesh Patel, a handy batsman down the order, likely to join the side only on Thursday, ruling him out of the first game, the Indians are left with only six `available' batsmen in the squad — skipper Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Yuveraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif.

The seventh batsman, a key element in India's triumphs this year, will not be available, at least for this encounter.

Actually with Tendulkar and Bangar on the injury list and Rakesh Patel not arriving, India has been reduced to a 13-member squad for the moment.

And since Parthiv Patel is unlikely to be picked, paceman Aashish Nehra could be the one to miss out. In other words, Zaheer Khan, Javagal Srinath, Ajit Agarkar (his batting ability may win him the nod over Nehra), Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble might comprise the Indian attack.

Zaheer is the in-form bowler, striking both at the beginning and the end of an innings.

The Eden Park pitch has some grass on it, and there could be some bounce and carry for the pacemen. Batting should still be much less of a challenge than in the Test series.

Said Indian coach, John Wright. "I know that it is a good wicket. It looks good and hard.''

Save, Rahul Dravid, the other Indian batsmen going into the match, have been short of runs. Ganguly insisted though that the batsmen would find their feet in the limited overs format.

"These are two different aspects of cricket. We have been in such a position in the past, where we lost the Test series and won the one-day series. It's a new ball game.''

The skipper has a fine record in limited overs cricket, and his opening partner Virender Sehwag is a different proposition altogether in this form of the game, where his ability to destroy attacks is well known.

In the absence of Tendulkar, Laxman, who has to put indifferent Test form behind him, and Dravid will provide the middle order experience. The young guns Kaif and Yuveraj, mean so much to this Indian one-day side, with their positive approach, hectic running between the wickets, and brilliant fielding that has, on several occasions, lifted the entire team this season.

With New Zealand and India, still not announcing the World Cup squads, the stakes are high for those on the fringe. The selectors will be watching and the pressure will be on.

Coming to New Zealand, Nathan Astle is often the powerhouse at the top of the order for New Zealand, and he will have skipper Stephen Fleming as his opening partner. Craig McMillan has been out of sorts in the middle-order, but the Indians know he can be dangerous.

Fleming said the side was working on specific areas like scoring off spinners.

The Kiwi captain admitted that his batsmen had not been in the best of nick, but hoped they would find their touch in the ODIs.

About India, he noted, "They are a good one-day side and have quality batsmen.

"Our bowlers will have to keep us on top of them. Individually, the bowlers are feeling good and their confidence is high.''

Kiwis flying high

Indeed, the New Zealand pace attack, where Shane Bond is a huge factor, with his ability to reverse swing at a high speed, has been flying high these days.

Darryl Tuffey bowled an impeccable line in the Test series, while Jacob Oram, played a useful supporting role.

Paul Hicthcock, a specialist one-day bowler, with the ability to send down yorkers and the slower ones, is likely to win the nod over Kyle Mills in the New Zealand 12.

With the inspirational Chris Cairns, the useful Chris Harris, and the promising Andre Adams, all absent due to injuries, men in the lower order such as Oram, a hard striker of the ball, will have to chip in with runs.

On the return of Srinath and Kumble to the Indian attack, Fleming remarked, "they have the experience, they are quality bowlers.''

Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh should pose searching questions to the Kiwis as well and the home batsmen do have their task cut out.

Top-order batsman Mathew Sinclair makes a return to the side, and he should bat at No.3, while Lou Vincent, an outstanding fielder, could be shifted down the order.

The Kiwis briefly experiment with Vincent as the 'keeper, but comeback man Brenden McCullum is the specialist wicket-keeper batsman for the first two ODIs.

The Boxing Day is a big occasion here. Who will pack the killer punch on a day when both sides would be sporting the big gloves.

The teams:

India (from): Sourav Ganguly (captain), Virender Sehwag, V.V.S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Yuveraj Singh, Mohammed Kaif, Sanjay Bangar, Ajit Agarkar, Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Parthiv Patel.

New Zealand (from): Stephen Fleming (captain), Nathan Astle, Mathew Sinclair, Craig McMillan, Lou Vincent, Brenden McCullum, Jacob Oram, Daniel Vettori, Paul Hitchcock, Darryl Tuffey, Shane Bond, and Kyle Mills.

Umpires: Messrs. Asoka de Silva and Brent Bowden.

Third umpire: Doug Cowie.

Play begins at 6.40 a.m. IST.